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The business of making a difference

Jan Garrison

Learning about social impact


November 24, 2021

Students involved with The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur and the Leadership Committee for Africa at Culver Academies met virtually with two staff members from Indiana University’s Kelley Institute for Social Impact (KISI) recently.

The session is part of The Rubin School’s continuing support of Culver Girls Academy’s 50th anniversary celebration, director J.D. Uebler said. The program is broadening its scope in defining entrepreneurism by studying social impact organizations. That fits with CGA’s long history of commitment to service and partnering with non-profit organizations, especially the Leadership Committee for Africa.

It also served as an introduction to KISI for the entrepreneurial studies students. A group will be traveling to Bloomington in April to observe and interact with the Kelley School Impact Competition pitches.

Shawna Meyer-Niederman and Stacie Ballard told the Culver group the Kelley School’s social impact program is the oldest of its kind at the collegiate level. What KISI does is prepare undergraduate students for the non-profit sector. While part of the business school, neither of them had a business background when they joined the program.

Meyer-Niederman told the students that KISI’s mission is to empower “socially conscious undergraduate students to make a difference in local and global communities through education, service, career development, and leadership opportunities.”

The program focuses on sustainable practices, social entrepreneurship, community service, international development, experiential learning, and business education. The question, Meyer-Niedeman said, is defining what is ‘social impact.” She then asked students for their definitions. Those included:

  • Doing an action that in the end will have a positive impact on someone else.
  • The above plus focuses on a certain social issue.
  • Solve general or specific issues that contribute to a community.
  • Contributions to communities or those around you that are long lasting.
  • Long-lasting effect or a community, building relationships, could be a project.

Meyer-Niederman said the definition of social impact may be different than it was 20 years ago – and it might even be different than it was just two years ago. The University of Michigan’s Ross Center for Social Impact defines social impact as “A significant, positive change that addresses a pressing social challenge.”

She then asked students if a “social impact” must be on a large scale or could it be on a small group or even an individual level. The impact can be small, she explained, but grow through a “ripple effect.” Likewise, several people making small contributions can generate a larger, faster impact. Think of it as 20 people filling a bathtub a cup at a time versus one person.


The Ross Center's Business Social Impact Continuum


How that social impact is created is where the business side comes into play. There are several business models that follow the social impact continuum, Meyer-Niederman explained. Examples are the foundational arms of business or corporation like Microsoft or Ford; Certified B corporations like Ben & Jerry’s; social enterprises like Newman’s Own; revenue-generating organizations like a symphony orchestra or Blue Cross; government-funded like universities and the Smithsonian; and completely donation-based like the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity.

She asked the group to also consider whether it would be possible for those donation-based organizations on one end of the spectrum to even exist without the support of the foundational arms of corporations, which provide grants and other funding.

Many businesses also pledge to use ethically sourced ingredients, pay fair wages, integrate diversity policies, and operate buy one-give one programs. It may make their products cost more, but socially conscious consumers believe it is worth the additional cost, she said. Those companies include Bombas socks, Ben & Jerry’s, and Patagonia.

And, Meyer-Neiderman said, one speaker at KISI, Rob Smith, made the case that all businesses have a social impact simply because they are creating jobs, which allow people to provide for themselves and others.

For students, the business side of social impact is learning or knowing the skills needed to operate in that environment. Those skills include knowing how to work with others, working within different communities and cultures, and understanding the needs of those being served.

When asked what high school students could do now to prepare for such positions, Meyer-Niederman said they should “develop yourself holistically.” Take advantage of your surroundings by talking about social impact with fellow students and faculty, she said, so you can decide where your interests are. That may impact what your next step – like your college choice – will be.

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