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Indiana University Bloomington

Institute for Social Impact

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Doing the Right Thing—But Still Making a Profit

Jeffery S. McMullen

Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship

Jeffery McMullen

“My classes are about pragmatic idealism—can you do this and still make a profit? How do you mix passion with reason? How do you mix empathy with self-interest?”

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Jeffery S. McMullen proposes this challenge for students who don’t believe you can solve social problems using entrepreneurial business solutions: take his class.

“For people who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, who don’t value this idea of social entrepreneurship, I’d invite them to take my class,” says McMullen. “I’m not a hippie, I’m not an idealist. I don’t make any assumptions. I simply conduct an objective, fair analysis of the concept.”

And he’s been doing just that for years. McMullen designed one of the first courses on social entrepreneurship in the country in 2005. McMullen, then a business professor at Baylor University, heard a little buzz on the issue and wanted to familiarize his students with the concept. Now social entrepreneurship is mainstream. McMullen’s original course is still going strong at Baylor—and in fact received the 2007 Innovation in Pedagogy Award from the Academy of Management’s Entrepreneurship Division—and now his Kelley courses are doing the same. “My social entrepreneurship courses are popular,” he admits. “I attribute some of that to the Internet and our increased exposure to how the other half lives.”

Whether teaching undergraduates or MBA students, McMullen says his approach is the same. Using a critical thinking framework, he cuts to the heart of what every red-blooded business student wants to know. “My classes are about pragmatic idealism—can you do this and still make a profit? How do you mix passion with reason? How do you mix empathy with self-interest?” he says.

McMullen has personal experience using business to solve world problems. In his first academic job, at Baylor, he helped turn coconuts into biodiesel fuel in Kenya. You heard that right. “I went to Nairobi, Kenya, to determine whether it would be feasible to have a team of students from the business school contribute to economic development through business planning and business consulting on the idea of the commercialization of coconut-based supply companies around the world,” he says.

He worked closely with Baylor Distinguished Professor of Engineering Walter Bradley, who McMullen calls “the entrepreneur of that venture,” to build connections between the engineering department and the business school for the project that eventually became Whole Tree Inc., a company whose website states: “As a triple bottom-line company, Whole Tree wants to make a profit, make a difference in the lives of people most in need, and make our planet a better place for our children and grandchildren.”

Since joining the Kelley faculty in 2008, McMullen has focused his research on the idea of development entrepreneurship. His most recent paper on the topic appeared in a special issue of Entrepreneurship Theory & Practice devoted to the future of entrepreneurship research. “The gist of the article is that social entrepreneurship has a unique and important role to play in economic development,” he says. “To eradicate the extreme poverty—living on less than $2 a day—that is common to many of the least developed countries, an economy must grow.” His article spotlights the efforts of people like Strive Masiyiwa of Econet Wireless, who made a fortune introducing cell phones to Zimbabwe and other African nations. Besides making a huge profit, Masiyiwa created a social movement. “What he did was politically transformative,” says McMullen. He says cell phones have created a social movement, allowing people to communicate more freely than ever before.

Whether teaching about social entrepreneurship or researching it, McMullen is enthusiastic about the possibilities. “It’s fun to teach such an interesting topic,” he says. “Students come in excited about the possibilities, and they discover that it’s really not so costly to do the right thing.”

Published March 15, 2011