Social entrepreneurship: What libraries can do to support local social entrepreneurs

Programs that reach out to artists and to minority youth interested in starting successful businesses can help individuals transcend dismal economic conditions

University of Pittsburgh Entrepreneurship Librarian LaMonica Wiggins described two important initiatives of social entrepreneurship during her keynote address at the Midwest Business Librarians Summit, held on the Purdue University campus in mid-July. She began by expressing her surprise at how little research exists on libraries helping social entrepreneurs. Core challenges for social entrepreneurship she has identified include a lack of capital with which to start and grow a business, limited resources and lack of strong business networks, community mistrust, and issues surrounding sustainability and sociability. To address the mistrust complication, she realized that business consultations with community members not just entrepreneurs needed to happen.

As a starting point, all entrepreneurs need to understand the true problem they want to solve. It’s not enough to have a great idea and then look for the problem; it has to be the other way around. She used the Business Model Canvas, a strategic management template that presents prospective entrepreneurs with a visual chart containing the nine key elements to consider when starting a business, and the Impact Gap Analysis Canvas, another visual tool that maps out a solutions landscape, showing who or what is impacted, what’s already been tried, and what future efforts are indicated, resulting in an impact gap that shows what is missing.

Case studies of social entrepreneurship

She then presented two case studies of social entrepreneurship: Arts X Entrepreneurship and the Lunchroom social innovation competition. The Arts X Entrepreneurship was spearheaded at neighbouring Pittsburgh higher education institution, Carnegie Mellon University. In this entrepreneurship for artists program, librarians helped not only with entrepreneurship basics but also with patent searching and intellectual property concerns. CMU is no stranger to the arts, it even has courses and an undergraduate program in integrative design, arts, and technology it calls IDeATe.

The Lunchroom project was designed to interest Black and Brown youth in becoming entrepreneurs. She acknowledged that young people starting businesses was not a new phenomenon, but the pandemic spurred the development of new virtual skills. Minority youth face additional challenges from soaring unemployment numbers and a dismal economy. Thus the interest in non-tradtional career paths. Students enrolled in the programme developed skills in ideation, product creation, business financial literacy, market research, and pitching an opportunity to investors. Important was that the students were paid. A visit from Samir Lakhani, describing his journey in creating Eco-Soap Bank energized the students.

Wiggins shared that she often had to throw her lesson plan out the window as classes rarely went as planned. One activity that worked well was Think, Pair and Share, where student groups read an article or analysed a website, then reported back to the larger group on key concepts and recurring themes. Engaging the students was difficult since they tended to be too tired to concentrate. Kahoot games, Google Jamboard and Mentimeter helped overcome these obstacles. Overall, Wiggins thinks the programme was a success and noted that several students had gone on to start real businesses.

Social entrepreneurship has worldwide implications. Variations on the Lunchroom project could be implemented by public libraries and academic libraries around the globe. It definitely takes investment in time spent planning, marketing and executing, but actual monetary costs are minimal.