02/13/2015 02:33 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2015

Students Embrace the Business of Social Change

The Aspen Challenge -- launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation -- provides a platform, inspiration, and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the world's most critical problems by engaging with leading global visionaries, artists, and entrepreneurs. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) will send teams from several schools to compete with each other to present their solutions at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, +Acumen lead architect Jo-Ann Tan explains how the Challenge prepares students to be leaders and problem-solvers.

"I want to help people!" Maya's* brow wrinkles with frustration as her story tumbles out in fits and starts. Her parents want her to focus on building the skills to run their family business, but she is intent on studying Sociology. She looks exhausted; at points she is on the verge of tears. At the time, Maya did not know that building the skills of business could help her tackle some of the world's gravest challenges.

I recall similar dilemmas in my life -- feeling like I had to give up a part of myself to choose a "more stable" path. Like Maya, I felt pressure to pursue a path in business or finance. Looking back, I am glad that I did. It is what ultimately led me to Acumen, a not-for-profit that invests in companies serving the poor.

Increasing numbers of youth all over the world are passionate about solving problems of poverty, inequality, and injustice and want to make it their life's work. Some may be familiar with the concept of social enterprise: creating business solutions to the world's most pressing issues. Many are not. This is why I am thrilled to be working with the inspiring and committed high school students participating in the Aspen Challenge in Washington, D.C.

When we talk about business as a force for good, an immediate assumption is that businesses create jobs or donate a portion of their profits to charity. Social enterprises sometimes do that, of course, but they also do so much more.

What excites me most about social enterprise is using the mechanics of business to amplify the change you want to see in the world. With more than a decade of experience finding and investing in businesses that serve the poor, Acumen has found three ways in which business is a tool for transformative change:

1. Businesses have a built-in "listening mechanism." Instead of treating people as passive recipients of aid, social enterprises see them as valued customers with a voice and the choice of being served. Social enterprises use customer feedback to inform decisions such as the design of a solar lantern, whether safe drinking water should be delivered to a customer's house, and what features customers using a toilet in the slums need. Without this mechanism, well-intentioned projects risk designing products or services that ultimately fail to meet the needs of the people they want to serve.

2. Businesses are naturally tuned towards sustainability and growth. Social enterprises grow when they provide a critical good or service that their customers value. By selling safe drinking water profitably, the enterprise can earn revenue to build the next water outlet in a neighboring village. As it continues to produce goods and services for its customers more efficiently, a successful social enterprise can deliver exponential social impact.

3. Social enterprises can learn from traditional businesses and their multiple arrays of models. One of Acumen's earliest investee companies and a well-known social enterprise, Aravind Eye Hospitals in India, has treated more than 32 million patients. Aravind's founder was inspired by McDonald's to create assembly-line efficiency, strict quality norms, brand recognition, standardization, consistency, cost control, and, above all, volume. This has enabled it to be financially sustainable even though the majority of patients pay little to nothing at all.

Business approaches may not work for every situation, but social enterprises are without a doubt changing the way the world tackles poverty. To share the successes as well as the challenges we have experienced at Acumen, we started an online learning academy. Our courses are free and open to anyone regardless of age or geography. A student like Maya can learn that doing business and creating change can go hand in hand. As for the participants in the Aspen Challenge, I cannot wait to learn what social innovations might come from the combined creativity, energy, and talent of today's student leaders.

*Name changed to protect identity