Peer Review

Can Students Take Their Values to Work?

As CEO of the socially conscious telecommunications company Working Assets, I know something about social entrepreneurship. Working Assets was founded in 1985 to give people the means to spend in a socially responsible way. When customers use our long-distance phone service, wireless service, and credit cards, we make donations at no extra cost to customers. So far, Working Assets has donated over $47 million to progressive nonprofits around the world. We also give our customers the chance to communicate to leaders on key issues by offering free telephone calls and by sending out preprinted letters on our customers' behalf to these decision makers. Clearly, Working Assets is committed to two goals: to social change and to running a successful business.

When Working Assets started, there were no role models of socially responsible businesses, there were no business school cases about for-profit companies doing good deeds and good business, and there was no academic research on whether business could be a force for social change. We broke new ground with our business model, and for the past four years I've taught a college course at Stanford University on what I've learned from running Working Assets. The curriculum was developed in collaboration with students and has several elements. The introductory course is a pass/fail lecture series in which students invite leaders of nonprofits, foundations, and socially minded businesses to share their experiences. The next course defines and provides examples of social enterprise. The following two business skills classes compare the difference between nonprofit and for-profit enterprise structures. Those sessions also cover finance, mission statements, marketing, and advertising. Held concurrently with these classes is the "collaboratory" I teach, in which student teams create a business or nonprofit that solves an international or domestic problem. Teams must develop innovative solutions and write executive summaries and business plans. I also encourage students to take advantage of classes that help give context to social enterprise, such as the history of philanthropy, nonprofits' role in civil society, and other hands-on courses for developing products that improve the world. Student teams also have the opportunity to enter a business plan competition specifically for social enterprises. The winners of the social ventures competition share a twenty thousand-dollar prize.

Implicitly, these courses address a larger question for undergraduates: "What values are important to me?" I encourage my students to continue to ask this question not only at the university, but also in the workplace, the community, and throughout their lives. In fact, the concept of taking our values to work is not limited to a nonprofit or company that openly shares its values. Instead, it means having the conviction and the knowledge to prove that decisions based on good values makes good financial sense. Take the classic examples of Johnson & Johnson's reaction to the Tylenol tampering versus the Enron power debacle in California. In the first case, the company seemed to know exactly what to do: Tylenol was pulled from the shelves across the country and was reintroduced once Johnson & Johnson had changed production and created new tamper-resistant packaging. Compare this to the deliberate actions of Enron to shut down a power plant during the rolling blackouts of 2000–2001, and the audio tapes capturing traders gleeful about traffic jams caused by power outages and the chaos they were perpetrating in California. After taking the course series, my hope is that students will be willing to make ethical business decisions when the next product recall or energy crisis happens. And that they take their good values with them wherever they go.


Laura Scher is the chief executive officer, Working Assets, and lecturer, Public Polling Programs, Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University.

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