Jon Isham opened with a reading about love from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – The concept of social entrepreneurship is here to stay and so is the popular two-word phrase, said Professor of Economics Jonathan Isham, Jr., the faculty director of the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship in remarks delivered on April 29 for the Carol Rifelj Faculty Lecture Series.

Isham explained why he thinks social entrepreneurship is a powerful idea that should endure the test of time.

“There is something about this term, like ‘social capital,’ that people gravitate toward. Social entrepreneurship is everywhere these days. There has been a wildfire of interest in it, particularly on college and university campuses.”

Faculty and students across the curriculum at Middlebury are discussing social entrepreneurship in their classes, Isham said, “and classes are our most important resource for students who are thinking about it.” There are interdisciplinary courses such as Social Entrepreneurship in the Liberal Arts and MiddCORE that focus directly on the topic. And perhaps the most visible manifestation is the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at 118 South Main Street with mentoring, grant programs, fellowships, speaker series, symposia, and workshops.

Isham defines social entrepreneurship by paraphrasing from a paper by Roger Martin and Sally Osberg. (Martin is the dean of the management program at University of Toronto, and Osberg is president of the Skoll Foundation.) Social entrepreneurship, Isham explained, occurs when individuals identify an unjust social equilibrium – the lack of access to clean water, for example, or political barriers to the development of renewable energy – and then lead a creative process to bring about a lasting, more-just social equilibrium.

The economist said the attention given to social entrepreneurship has led students to display empathy, express agape (the Greek term for love of one’s fellow human beings), and effect social change, but a big part of the allure of social entrepreneurship often comes back to the term itself.

“It suggests that entrepreneurship, which is at the heart of our complex and sometimes heartless markets, could be a little more social and could have a little more good attached to it,” Isham explained. “While at the same time if we focus on the ‘social’ part, tagging ‘entrepreneurship’ on it suggests that social agencies, NGOs, and nonprofits could be a little more entrepreneurial – a little more rigorous, like the way you have to operate if you are going to be a successful entrepreneur.”

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The speaker waiting in the wings. (Click image to enlarge.)

The term is useful, Isham said, “because it helps people boil down a concept that they get.” He said the phrase social entrepreneurship “may annoy a lot of you” – referring to some of his faculty colleagues – “but that’s okay because I think it’s a term that works, and it definitely works for students.”

According to the speaker, social entrepreneurship at liberal arts colleges is leading students to ponder the essential questions, What matters most to me? and What in the end do I really care about? Isham revels in such inquiry, for he is an economist and humanist who researches the institutional determinants of well-being and sustainability. A member of the Middlebury faculty since 1999, he was also director of Middlebury’s program in environmental studies from 2011-2014

Isham pointed to the Emersonian ideal that the purpose of life is to have made a difference and to have a life lived well.

“Social entrepreneurship is not the only way to get students to think about a life well lived. In fact it’s far from it. I’d like to think that we do it [at Middlebury] in so many other ways,” he explained.

“So do not get me wrong. I am not actually an advocate that this is the thing to do. But I am definitely an advocate of it as a thing to do. At my most Machiavellian, the kind of ‘honey to the bee’ part that is students’ excitement about the term is a way for them to end up doing stuff that they did not anticipate.”

- With reporting and photography by Robert Keren