Smith School Undergrads Present Research in Rome

SIF Conference Sign

From left: Fasika Delessa, Evan Haas, Aishwariya Chandrasekar, Sarina Haryanto and Professor David Kirsch

by: Megan McPherson

On April 18-19, four Smith School students in the Center for Social Value Creation’s Social Innovation Fellows program, Sarina Haryanto, Aishwariya Chandrasekar, Fasika Delessa and Evan Haas, and Professor David Kirsch attended the inaugural IESE-LUISS Business School Conference on Responsibility, Sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship in Rome. Under the guidance of Professor Kirsch, these undergraduate students presented their paper, Hybrid Organizations and Social Enterprise Ecosystems: Findings from a U.S. Survey, to a room full of established academics.

The survey that formed the basis of their research was first launched by Halcyon Incubator in Washington, D.C. Last year, Halcyon released From the Ground Up: Defining Social Enterprise Systems in the U.S., the results of a nationwide survey to social entrepreneurs that assessed cities based on four “pillars” that create a healthy framework for a social enterprise ecosystem: Funding, Quality of Life, Human Capital and Regulations & Receptivity. The findings of the report designated Washington D.C. the number one ecosystem for social entrepreneurs.

After Halcyon Incubator formed an official partnership with the Dingman Center this past fall, Dingman Center Associate Director for Social Entrepreneurship Sara Herald and Halcyon Incubator Program Manager Ryan Ross discussed a research partnership on this year’s survey. Sara reached out to David Kirsch and the Social Innovation Fellows, who as part of their program must do a practicum or consulting project in the spring semester. Sarina, Aishwariya, Fasika and Evan were eager to volunteer, and with support from their professor, started the rigorous process of researching, refining and amending the content of the original survey, as well as expanding the survey’s outreach to increase the quantity and quality of participants.

When I interviewed Sarina and Aishwariya about their research experience, Sarina reflected on the first survey, “We were wondering, how did they come up with these four pillars in the first place? That’s when literature review became really essential.” As part of the academic process, every change they made had to be documented and justified with established research to eliminate bias as much as possible. When determining new questions to add to the survey, Aishwariya commented , “It was interesting to move out of our own perspectives. We had to imagine what people looking at the report would want to see, or what people answering the surveys would want to see.”

Throughout this exploration into academia, David Kirsch, the Dingman Center’s 2017 Rudy Award winner for Faculty Member of the Year, acted as a supportive guide and mentor. “Professor Kirsch has been our champion since day one,” Sarina exclaimed, going on to tell me about the late nights he spent with them at the Smith School to collaborate on their research. Sarina and Aishwariya both described the paper as a “consummate effort” on the part of the students and their professor. The night before their presentation in Rome, they all stayed in the hotel lobby until 2 a.m. to practice, talking through the paper and responses to potential questions. In one particularly surreal moment, Professor Kirsch told the fellows, “You need to refer to me as your co-author and you need to call me David.” Sarina and Aishwariya admitted, “We had to practice!”

In Rome, the academic community proved welcoming of these young students already engaged in high-level social innovation research. The fellows had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their academic “celebrities,” people whose work was frequently cited in their paper. They were honored that several of these academics, including keynote speaker Johanna Mair, attended their presentation. Since their own presentation comprised a short span of the two-day conference, they attended many other interesting sessions as well on topics ranging from scaling social impact to an anthropological analysis of milk.

After the conference, the students went on an extensive food and sightseeing tour of Rome with Professor Kirsch. Along the way they had the chance to visit Impact Hub Rome, where they learned of the unique cultural challenges Rome poses as a social enterprise ecosystem. For example, in Italy public funding has a negative connotation, so there are fewer government-funded foundations that generate impact. Though social enterprises in Rome are also not legally distinct from for-profit businesses, they fulfill a valuable role in supplementing the lack of publicly-funded resources.

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The overall experience of the research project, conference and Rome trip had no small impact upon Sarina, Aishwariya, Fasika and Evan. Aishwariya remarked that “Before this, going into a PhD or writing a dissertation just seemed unapproachable.” Sarina agreed, adding, “Investing a lot of time and effort in research, it’s such a fulfilling process to see how we’re producing knowledge…That trip opened my eyes to academia and it’s something I look forward to doing in life.” Both of them were confident on one point: “Social Innovation Fellows has changed our lives.”

The team of students and Professor Kirsch are currently working on finalizing the paper and their findings to submit to the Journal of Business Ethics, which is releasing a special issue devoted to the conference. Over the next few months, they will continue to extrapolate trends from the survey data and examine potential correlations between cities. We look forward to sharing the results of their research in the next Social Enterprise Ecosystems report.


Funding for Sarina Haryanto, Aishwariya Chandrasekar, Fasika Delessa and Evan Haas to travel to Rome and attend the conference was provided by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, the Center for Social Value Creation, Office of Global Initiatives and the Office of Undergraduate Studies.

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