09/15/2010 07:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Social Entrepreneurship Growing Despite (or Perhaps Because of?) Economic Challenges

Interesting things happen at the intersection of the Great Recession and the aspirations of the Millennial Generation. They are the young people I see every day in my work at the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at UIC and what I am observing will stand the "greed is good" philosophy on its head.

For the most part, my students come from Chicago and many of them represent the first generation in their families to attend college. They arrive with an entrepreneurial spirit and are the ones most likely to look at a turbulent economy and say, "How can I make sense of this and make a living at the same time?"

It has led to an interesting hybrid -- students who want to use the tools of entrepreneurship to help improve conditions in society and earn a living doing so.

Enter the social entrepreneur.

An organization built by a social entrepreneur is designed to fulfill a social need. Unlike a traditional nonprofit organization, the social enterprise is designed to be primarily self-sustaining. It generates enough income to meet its needs and hopefully to grow, without complete reliance on the subsidies from government or philanthropy that are typical of the nonprofit sector.

Here in Chicago one of the nation's most successful ventures in social entrepreneurship was developed through the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which brought the idea of car sharing to the Chicago region. The center's vision is that everyone deserves access to safe, affordable transportation. By setting up I-Go car sharing, a system of short term car rentals, with easily available cars located throughout the region, I-Go tapped into a lively market and has built a self-sustaining business, with profits plowed back into making the system more widely available. Last year, for example, I-Go innovated a way of combining car sharing and CTA ridership on one smart card, the nation's first joint venture between a public transit agency and a car sharing service.

From the perspective of the social entrepreneur, I-Go yields a triple bottom line: Profit, people and planet. It generates revenues that cover operating costs with enough left over to allow for expansion. It meets a social need, and it does so in an environmentally sustainable way. I-Go is but one example of a rapidly growing trend. Social entrepreneurship has a lot of appeal to young people who have seen first hand how the hard economic times have come about. Many of them are from families directly affected by the recession. They want to turn their entrepreneurial energy to helping rather than accumulating.

The interest has been strong enough that it led us at UIC's College of Business Administration and its Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies to build a new concentration in social entrepreneurship. This is not just something that the faculty dreamed up and offered to the students. It came about because this new generation of students demanded it and a new generation of young faculty were eager to respond.

Over the course of the past two years, our students worked with their professors and departments to develop a course in social entrepreneurship. Spurred by this interest, a cohort of faculty members began discussing how to introduce into the curriculum a series of four new courses related to social good. One wanted to introduce a course on social marketing, one suggested a general course on social entrepreneurship, another thought a course on social responsibility was needed, and one was eager to teach socially responsible leadership. Interest among the students became so strong that they circulated a petition in support of new courses in social entrepreneurship. Faculty members, department heads, associate deans, representatives of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and students hammered out a plan to launch not one course, but all four proposed courses. They will be introduced into the curriculum one-by-one over the next four semesters.

The idea of social entrepreneurship is not, of course, limited to Chicago. Perhaps triggered by the pressures of the economy, but certainly stimulated by it, I am seeing ventures in social entrepreneurship popping up all over the country. As further evidence of this trend, B Corporations were recently introduced in the United States as a new legal entity. B Corporations are purpose-driven and provide benefits to numerous constituents including customers, stockholders, employees, the community and the environment. They use the power of business to address social problems. Professional associations like Social Ventures Network that provide educational and networking opportunities for social entrepreneurs are growing rapidly. Finally, regional venture capital firms with a mission to support social ventures are springing up across the country.

Entrepreneurs are those who see opportunity in the free enterprise system, build new businesses and create jobs. The economic times we are in has stimulated a new generation of young people to combine their entrepreneurial spirit with a desire to help make things better. We are seeing the rise of social entrepreneurship among our students at UIC and it is happening across the country. The nation will be better for it.