Entrepreneurship and Liberal Arts Education
Issue   |   Wed, 02/26/2014 - 00:54

"A liberal arts education is rich in metaphors that are capable of capturing the multifaceted life of an entrepreneur” — Dennis Ray, “Liberal Arts for Entrepreneurs.”

In November, TEDxAmherstCollege drew in hundreds of students. Many students have purchased refrigerators from Green Garage, and a number of students in the Amherst community is currently anticipating the new BikeShare program. But most people are not aware of their common denominator: the Social Innovation Leadership Team(SILT).

SILT is a unique student-staff group at the CCE created in 2009 by a group of Amherst students. We have recently helped coordinate TEDxAmherstCollege, worked with our fellows, namely Green Garage and BikeShare and held multiple events over the past four years. We strive to foster innovative approaches to social problems, offer skills and resources to those who are interested in social change, and provide connections that can lead to sustainable collaborations.

Admittedly, those are some pretty challenging things to do, especially at Amherst College. When we look at schools like MIT and Harvard, with their entrepreneurship organizations, we can’t help but notice the contrast and then attribute some of it to certain characteristics of Amherst.

The college and its students generally seem to have an innate reservation about doing anything too “practical” for a liberal arts college, almost like we’re saying, “that’s not what we’re here for.” Most of the students who complain about the lack of practicality in their education have failed to do anything about it, most probably because they don’t know what to do or don’t think they have the time. The absence of courses related to entrepreneurship in the curriculum also does not help.

At first glance, it might only be mildly irritating, or it might even make sense to some. After all, we do go to a liberal arts college. But the important thing to note here is that the kind of argument that condones inactivity for the sake of preserving our unique “liberal” education has as its underlying assumption that entrepreneurship is somehow the antithesis of a liberal arts education.

Let’s make a comparison. The ideal Amherst student is open-minded, tolerant, intellectually curious, self-actualizing and smart, and he or she values education for its own sake, appreciates cultural diversity and seeks to contribute to society. Social entrepreneurs engage in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation and learning. They are open-minded, intellectually curious, self-actualizing and smart.

In addition, here’s what former CEO of General Motors Roger Smith once observed: “The ultimate impact of the liberal arts on the art of management, then, is a major contribution to the evolution of an ethical and humanistic capitalism — a system that stimulates innovation, fosters excellence, enriches society and dignifies work.”

This all sounds like something that Amherst College is trying to do. The fundamental elements of a liberal arts education are essential to the development of an entrepreneurial mindset — it is an instrument through which we can not only be better informed about the problems we face in today’s society, but also comprehend the necessity of innovative technologies and solutions. It isn’t hard to see that there is a definite, mutually beneficial connection between liberal arts education and social entrepreneurship that is practically invisible at Amherst.

With that said, solidifying the bridge between liberal arts and entrepreneurship, rather than threatening either, would lead to the discovery of new paths of inquiry and learning that could augment the overall quality of our education.
At this point, some readers might want to ask, “now what?” There are a lot of things that can and need to be done in order to establish social entrepreneurship as a significant aspect of the Amherst culture.

You don’t even need to know exactly what social entrepreneurship is. And chances are, you, an Amherst College student, whatever that might imply in this context, probably don’t know how to define social entrepreneurship without doubting yourself. As a matter of fact, neither can I, or the majority of people I know. Members of SILT, past and present, have had diverse interpretations of SILT’s mission statement. One of the most challenging aspects of working for SILT is trying to explain to our friends what exactly it is we do. But there is sort of a consensus among us that Kristine Choi ’16 says best: “We are a student-staff group dedicated to inspiring and supporting an atmosphere of social entrepreneurship on campus.” In addition, recent graduate Alex Sondak ’12 has given me his definition of social entrepreneurship: “Leveraging business principles to make social impact, or something along those lines.” I agree with both. Those are some solid, impressive ways to talk to people about the topic. But I’m sure that some might disagree and assert their own definitions, and that’s understood because it is not an idea that can be defined so easily. The significance of the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ fluctuates depending on the individuals, circumstances, and experiences. For some, it means implementing more environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastic bottles to raise awareness about the environment, or doing smart things related to a trending social issue to make a lot of money or thinking of novel ways to combat poverty and homelessness in the local area. Ultimately, it is a mechanism through which people make visible, influential changes based on their beliefs and objectives.

SILT is a group that strives to positively impact the campus community, intellectually challenge its members, and instill in them a sense of awareness and a taste for novelty and progress.

Students who want to be involved and more aware have several options. You can start by liking our Facebook page (Social Innovation Leadership) and attending our casual, biweekly Friday lunch tables on the second floor of Val. We also have a few exciting events coming up. On March 6 and 28, we will be holding Solution Saloons. In mid-April we will be holding the Big Idea Challenge, with cash prizes.

Remember that change begins with conversations, and don’t forget to attend our events.

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