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BYU social entrepreneurs seek to solve world problems

BYU\'s Ballard Center for Self Reliance, part of the Marriott School of Management and located in the Tanner Building, works to reach out across all majors and disciplines and encourage social entrepreneurs in every sector.
BYU\'s Ballard Center for Self Reliance, part of the Marriott School of Management and located in the Tanner Building, works to reach out across all majors and disciplines and encourage social entrepreneurs in every sector.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

PROVO — He doesn't fit the picture of the high-powered, pinstripe-suit-wearing MBA graduate taking on the world. In fact, Justin King, Tilapiana owner and founder, said he tried the regimen of working in corporate America after receiving his BYU bachelor's degree in finance in 2007, but somehow he didn't feel it was the right fit.

"Looking out my office window, I had amazing views of Silicon Valley," King said. "I had a great job, was working with one of the most innovative technology companies in the world and was making great money. But I desperately needed a change."

King enrolled again at BYU and earned his MBA in April. He said he believes he found the purpose he was looking for in his work as he has become a social entrepreneur. King speaks nostalgically as he reflects on how he discovered what he refers to as "that little small office in the Tanner Building" known as the Ballard Center for Self Reliance.

Today, the center includes the Peery Social Entrepreneurship Program which supports students and faculty involved in the work of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is a form of social innovation in which innovators like King work locally and globally to find sustainable solutions to society's greatest problems. Using entrepreneurial strategies and skills, they create nonprofit and for-profit business models to solve social problems and drive change.

Ballard Center administrator Brad Hales said one of the goals of the center is to reach out across all majors and disciplines and encourage social entrepreneurs in every sector.

"This is not about nonprofit or for-profit, but about doing good in whatever discipline you are engaged in," Hales said. "It is about having social entrepreneurial focus where you are trying to be innovative, thoughtful and disciplined in your approach to solving social problems."

Students are able to learn how to make an impact in whatever discipline they are engaged in by participating in myriad programs and initiatives the Ballard Center offers.

The on-campus internship program, which matches students with top social innovators, was granted the Award for Innovation in Social Entrepreneurship Education from Ashoka University in April, according to a news release. The university is an international leader in supporting college social entrepreneurship programs.

After participating in an internship program, King returned from his unique mentoring experience committed to creating a solution to alleviate poverty in Ghana.

"Because of the opportunity I had been provided by the Ballard Center internship, it was a springboard to launch my own social venture," King said.

For King, the discovery of the "little small office" in the Tanner Building propelled him into his new life's work and to the forefront as a social entrepreneur. Together, King and Tilapiana cofounder Andrew Stewart became involved in creating village level fish farms.

Fish is the primary source of protein in developing countries, so there is a high demand. King explained how fish production is on the decline due to negative impacts on locally sustainable environments. He believed one way to solve this problem was fish farming. Collaborating with another friend who was on a Ballard Center internship in Nicaragua, King and Stewart began researching fish farming as a tool to alleviate poverty in developing countries.

"He planted in our minds the idea that this was something we could do in Africa," King said.

Over the course of several months of meetings with government officials, local fish farmers and building relationships in Ghana, Tilapiana was born.

"BYU is a leader in social entrepreneurship among universities in the United States," said Aaron Miller, faculty director of the competition, in a news release. "Most social-venture competitions pool applicants from multiple schools. The fact that we can sustain such high-quality ventures every year with BYU students alone is pretty remarkable."

Colleges and universities teaching social entrepreneurship have quadrupled in the past decade, according to Ashoka's website. In 2004, 20 universities in the U.S. had a course in social entrepreneurship. Today, close to 100 U.S academic institutions in offer courses on social entrepreneurship.

For years the question was often asked by many: Can entrepreneurship really be taught? According to Ashoka revenue analyst and BYU alum David Stoker the answer is yes.

"Certainly, the environment can be fostered to teach the skills to be an entrepreneur in the world, which Ashoka founder Bill Drayton believes are necessary: empathy, teamwork and leadership being the three key skills that everyone will need to master to make a difference in our future world," Stoker said.

Jane Leu, one of Ashoka's social entrepreneurs, agrees.

"Universities are uniquely positioned to be huge players — maybe even the biggest players — in determining where social entrepreneurship goes, as a field of education, as a practice, as a way we live our lives," according to a statement by Leu on Ashoka's website.

The center has recently launched its Social Venture Academy, a program that mentors students like King in social entrepreneurship and teaches how to actualize their ideas, according to a news release. The program is available to all majors. Future Social Venture Competition finalists need to enroll in the Social Venture Academy in order to be eligible for the competition.

For more information, visit the Ballard Center's website, at ballardcenter.byu.edu, or the website for Students for Social Entrepreneurship, at studentsforsocent.org.