Six Degrees of Social Entrepreneurship

You’ve probably heard of the ”Small World” hypothesis. The theory states that most pairs of people, even in a very large population, can be linked by a short chain of intermediate acquaintances. According to empirical studies, the average number of links is six. Thus, the phenomenon is referred to more commonly as “Six Degrees of Separation”. Dr. Hasan Guclu, Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh believes that “this interconnectedness means there are no strangers, for everyone is a friend or a neighbors’ friend or a relative. We are loyal and faithful to the extent that we share our troubles, because ignorance only builds an impenetrable wall between us”. Let me share the story of my “small world”, where six Notre Dame links led me to Intern Werks, a social enterprise that connects good students with good companies.

After receiving my bachelor degree from Notre Dame, I delayed my entry into the workforce to attend graduate school. The employment market in 1985 was good, but I was ill-prepared for a job search since I lacked relevant experience. Grad school didn’t change that. For five months, I worked part-time and answered help wanted ads in the newspaper. At one point, my mother actually called the University. She and dad had paid a lot of money for my degree and someone ought to help me find a job, she reasoned. It was Rev. Theodore Hesburgh himself who answered the phone. Humanitarian that he was, he offered to help. He even sent my mom a follow up letter, which I have in my scrapbook. Perhaps Fr. Ted prayed for me at the Grotto, because eventually I was hired as a personnel administrator at a bank.

Shortly thereafter, I settled into a career in corporate talent acquisition. Most of my work involved professional and executive search, but occasionally I traveled to college campuses to recruit entry-level talent. A few years ago, I was invited by a colleague and fellow Domer to attend a career fair at Notre Dame. Take my word for it; it’s pretty cool to visit your alma mater as a recruiter. You’re treated like a VIP, you get to wear an “Alumni” ribbon on your identification badge, and students try their best to impress you. Honestly, I was impressed, not only with the firm handshakes and persuasive elevator pitches, but with the character of these students. They appeared to embrace the University’s mission “to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”

As a recruiter, however, I also was a little concerned. These young men and women were equipped with leadership experience, international exposure, and volunteer service. But more than a few of them failed to demonstrate that they were the right talent for my organization. They, too, were likely to experience frustration with the beginning stage of their career. Katrina, my first-born and member of the Class of 2014, attended that job fair as a sophomore. As her dad, I vowed that she would not be disappointed.

In my youth, I had a penchant for venturing into areas on campus that few of my classmates either knew about, or got to see up close. During my WSND radio disc jockey days, my best friend Paul and I would go onto the roof of O’Shaughnessy Hall and regale in the view of South Quad.  On a whim, my girlfriend – now wife of thirty years – and I once slipped into Notre Dame Stadium and posed for pictures at midfield standing in three feet of snow. And I won’t mention the gory details of my breaking-and-entering at the Sailing Club Boathouse while serving on the AnTostal Committee. Regrettably, one very public place I should have patronized regularly registered only a solitary visit from me. Not until twenty-five years after my graduation would I return to the Career Center.

While standing at my employer’s table in the Joyce Center, I thought, “What could I do as a recruiting professional and alumnus to help Katrina and her classmates launch the career they worked so hard to achieve?” As if scripted, one of the staff of the Career Center suddenly approached my table and introduced himself.  We met later in his office and spoke at length. He described the Center’s success in providing students with tools, guidance, and in some cases, connections needed to secure that all-important first job. “But ultimately,” he said, “the student is responsible for preparing to transition from classroom to workplace.” The first link in the chain.

I was employed in proprietary post-secondary education for a decade. The first five years featured unparalleled growth and prosperity. They were followed by five years of adding internal controls and safeguards to protect student interests. Entrepreneurs, educators, and administrators were forced to improve their focus on student outcomes to accommodate the demands of accreditors, lawyers, and regulators. But the intense scrutiny of for-profit education didn’t just expose flaws; it also revealed countless student success stories. Those successes had a common element – an effective partnership between academia and industry. Trade schools serve a critical need for employers seeking workers with specific job-related knowledge and expertise. “Was it possible”, I wondered, “to combine the vocational education approach of a for-profit institution with the pedagogy of a non-profit liberal arts college?” I started making inquiries, and the responses were encouraging.

My first meaningful discussion involved a former telecommunications executive. After a successful human resources career, he founded a technology outsourcing firm. He sold that company for $6 billion, and became Chief Career Officer for the Illinois Institute of Technology. Over the span of several weeks, we discussed campus recruiting and internships.  Bruce was confident that small and midsize businesses gladly would pay for a managed services solution for college relations. He helped me to identify a legitimate business need, and to start thinking of my desire to help students as a business opportunity.  The second link in the chain.

Now focused on internships, I needed to learn as much as I could. Several white papers, workshops, and webinars later, I was enlightened about their shortcomings. Many are unpaid, lack focus, involve menial work, or don’t convert to full-time jobs. The solution for producing better internship outcomes is simple: build formal programs with experiential learning objectives, meaningful work assignments, and performance management expectations. Transforming this solution into a business service, however, is a challenge. I needed help.

I was confident I could handle the operations and finance of a bootstrap start-up. But I knew practically nothing about marketing and sales. Since my daughter was enrolled in Mendoza’s marketing program, I sought her help.  She said she knew a professor named “Weebs” who might be willing to read my business plan. “Who is Weebs?” I asked.  “Professor Weber,” she replied.  I paused, and then asked, “As in, John Weber?” “Yes, that’s him.”  What a small world indeed; Professor Weber was my Principles of Marketing instructor in 1982. Katrina delivered my request, and a few weeks later, Prof. Weber and I met at the Au Bon Pain in the Hesburgh Library. Katrina spoke admiringly of Prof. Weber; it was clear why.  His willingness to share insight, give constructive criticism, and help me course-correct was invaluable. It felt good to be back in his class, if only for a little while. The third link in the chain.

Prof. Weber advised me to determine carefully which types of employers and students I wanted to serve. Using his text book, I delved into the world of market segmentation. Having answered the “who, what, and how” questions, I should have been pleased. But I wasn’t. My intention - to help decent kids get good jobs after graduation – may have been admirable. But I hadn’t answered the “Why do it?” question.  Notre Dame would intervene again.

In May 2014, my wife and I returned to Notre Dame Stadium, and again ventured inside.  This time, we were not trespassers. We were proud parents of our graduate. For the record, Katrina departed college with two completed internships and a job offer in hand. Following the University Ceremony and boxed lunches, we joined the Mendoza College of Business Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony. Dean Roger Huang delivered the speech he prepared for the Senior Class. I took his words to heart. Referring to Mendoza College’s fifth consecutive award as the nation’s top ranked business school, he said, “Being recognized as a leader signifies that we have a responsibility to serve a host of global stakeholders whose future depends on the raising up of leaders who understand the power of business when it is directed towards changing society for the better.  Therein lies my challenge to you, graduating class of 2014. Become servant leaders“.  The fourth link in the chain.

The answer to “Why do it?” was coming into focus. Intern Werks - the name of my newly formed company - would help companies build internship programs to develop the next generation of servant leaders. I started researching servant leadership, and eventually landed on the website of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. There I learned that Center sponsors its annual Greenleaf Research Scholars Award. It recognizes up to five pre-tenured faculty, early career practitioners, and advanced graduate students who study the impact of servant leadership in a wide range of organizational or social contexts.  One of the members of the Research Scholars Review Committee is on the faculty of Notre Dame. Curious, I followed the trail which led me to the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. That’s when I first saw the term “social entrepreneurship.”

On its website, the Gigot Center declares its commitment to advancing “socially responsible forms of business” and engaging and promoting “new and creative ways of using business as a tool to solve pressing social issues”.  It encourages students to “think beyond personal wealth creation and instead, [sic] create wealth and deliver lasting impact in disenfranchised communities around the world”. According to Gigot, social entrepreneurship is “more than just well-intentioned philanthropy.  It provides a vital link between economic and social value.” Now I knew the purpose for launching Intern Werks. The fifth link in the chain. But Notre Dame wasn’t finished yet.

In June of 2016, I was invited by my local parish to attend the Latino Enrollment Institute. LEI is part of the University of Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education. It teaches principals, pastors and educators to transform their Catholic schools to attract and serve Latino students more effectively, especially in our inner cities. During the four day event, experts formulated institutional development and fundraising strategies for Catholic schools across the United States. It dawned on me; my social enterprise could help Catholic college students become future servant leaders, and financially support  students who could not otherwise afford a Catholic K-12 education. In his address, Dean Huang also had declared, “It is our heart’s desire to make a difference in the world.” The Notre Dame collective had provided me with the means to build a ministry for education. The sixth link in the chain.

I don’t yet know the impact Intern Werks will make; I put my faith in God for that. But I believe there are many more Notre Dame connections ahead. Connections between young people and the value-based employers who will teach them to restore respect, humility, and morality to the workplace. Connections between communities and the Catholic schools who serve them by developing youth through religious formation and Catholic social teachings. Connections between interns and the mentors who will guide them towards genuine concern for the success of all stakeholders in the workplace – employees, customers, business partners, communities, and society as a whole including those who are least privileged. It is, after all, a small world of neighbors and friends.