Reaching for a Stanford that Embraces the Paradox of Social Entrepreneurship

Nika Soon-Shiong
Class Year:
African Studies

The students struck a difficult balance between critiquing social ventures, respecting when particular interventions worked, and understanding why.

The task was this—to embrace paradox. To honor the complexity of the world’s most pressing issues in the fields of education and health, yet convey them meaningfully in a ten-week quarter. To tell stories of nonprofits that move prospective audiences, yet avoid falling prey to disempowering images that reify tropes of the aid recipient “other.” To protect the optimism of budding or experienced social entrepreneurs, yet hamper the eagerness that glorifies fast-tracked solutions to robust problems.

Perhaps this task explains why Dr. Piya Sorcar’s course, Designing Research Based Interventions to Solve Problems in Global Public Health, is cross-listed among Education, Human Biology, Medicine, African Studies, and Health, Research and Policy. To break the mold of teaching about “complex problems” in silos means to work across, between, in, and around disciplinary boundaries.

Over the past four years over 150 students have taken Dr. Sorcar’s popular course. This year, the class was capped at 25 graduates and undergraduates, hailing from backgrounds in biology, management science and engineering, science technology and society, and product design, to name a few. One student was a freshman who is now traveling to Botswana to work on a photovoice project that explores unemployment among HIV+ youth, another a Stanford Business School student with a background in corporate consulting.

In the first four weeks, the class was introduced to various social entrepreneurship models (Firefox is a nonprofit?), the framing of social ventures’ stories, the research-based design method, and several case studies. Students learned alongside experts in the field, gaining insider knowledge about the regulatory hurdles and communication barriers that social entrepreneurs must confront head-on.

The major case study was TeachAIDS, the award-winning nonprofit that Dr. Sorcar spun out of her thesis research at Stanford, which underwent 500+ iterations in order to develop culturally appropriate HIV education curriculum for the most vulnerable populations. The software has been translated into 13 languages, and used in over 80 countries. In every case study, students were brought beyond the positive veneer of social ventures’ good marketing and into the challenges that mark an organization’s trajectory. Sometimes, this meant taking a critical eye to a stated solution and the assumptions behind a company’s framing of a problem.

Students were forced to ask difficult questions of nonprofits and, in turn, of themselves. What are our intentions for wanting to work in the social space, or abroad? What does “voluntourism” look like, and has this manifested in our high school or university experiences? Do we understand local contexts in international environments—can we ever? What mischief does the word “local” do in this case?

This kind of moral wrestling can be heard across social media platforms and student wide conversations, yet too rarely does it make it to a class syllabus. Students thought through the practical and ethical considerations of designing interventions that increase human dignity. They did this alongside world-renowned experts and even a few celebrities.

“The guided experience of critiquing an international organization allowed me to explore my own perspectives while also learning from the perspectives of the guest speakers. This class presented an interesting take on interventions, allowing me to critically assess the place of innovation in global health work,” said Will Funk, Science Technology and Society Major.

The final six weeks of the course put the students’ learning to the test as they embarked on the final project: an evaluation of an existing social venture, a previous winner of The Tech Awards. The Tech Awards is The Tech Museum’s illustrious program that celebrates those who are using technology to solve pressing problems. Students conducted speed analyses of the 2016 Tech Awards nominees to provide the judging committee real time feedback on this year’s applicants, whetting their appetite for a more in depth analysis of a particular company.

In small teams, students conducted extensive research on a company with the goal of creating two to three key recommendations. When the student groups were asked to make a five-slide outline of their research at various checkpoints, they each received five pages of single-spaced feedback, filled with questions. Students were pushed (and pushed hard) to move beyond Internet research to think proactively about the issues companies aimed to address.

They conducted interviews with experts in the field, recipients of products, and potential new partners for their company. They honed the art of cold calling and re-discovered the vast resources at one of the greatest research institutions in the world, including anthropologists such as Dr. Laura Hubbard, the Associate Director of the Center for African Studies who had worked on a team of social scientists to create a report on one of the companies.

Thanks to the many contributors who have committed their time and energy to the success of Dr. Sorcar’s class, including the Center for African Studies, the Haas Center for Public Service, The Tech Museum, and more, the students were able to make outstanding recommendations in their formal presentations held at Google corporate headquarters in Mountain View. They presented to a panel of industry leaders and academics, including the likes of Vinay Goel, Product Management Director at Google, and Michele Barry, Dean for Global Health at the Stanford School of Medicine.

The recommendations ranged from using drone technology to forging innovative partnerships. But perhaps the best discoveries of the quarter came when students realized the importance of in-depth research and listening to the people who we hope will benefit from our ideas.

“No single size fits all when it comes to health solutions… Dr. Sorcar taught me to look beyond the technical specs and focus on the needs of the people we serve,” said Brian Jun, an Electrical Engineering major.

“I was pushed to challenge ‘easy’ ways of categorizing the world, and instead embrace how messy, complicated, and tangled the world is—and then find a way to make my own sense of it,” said Christine Chen, Human Biology major.

The students struck a difficult balance between critiquing social ventures, respecting when particular interventions worked, and understanding why. They took the uncomfortable step of disentangling the excitement that surrounds new technologies from the cultural and logistical considerations that often get lost in this fray.

The task was this—to identify what we do not know. To ask the right questions. To realize that, in fact, knowing to ask just the right question is more powerful than a conviction in the right answer.

Learn more about Stanford's course Designing Research-Based Interventions to Solve Global Health Challenges.