The Practical Idealist

by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Catherine Muther

With the proliferation of hip websites like Kickstarter, it seems anyone can come up with an idea for changing the world, get funding, and see their idea become reality. Social entrepreneurship—applying business principles to a venture seeking social change—is a trendy term these days, and new projects intent on helping those less fortunate are cropping up in droves.

This was not the case in 1994, when Catherine Muther ’69 (economics) decided to leave a lucrative senior position in marketing at Cisco Systems, determined to use her business acumen to realize greater social equity instead of just greater profits. Muther says she decided to “build on what I learned from building new companies in new industries to create an entrepreneurial foundation focused on change,” and she established the Three Guineas Fund (named after Virginia Woolf’s famous essay on war and women) with $2 million of her own money. The organization is committed to establishing opportunities for women and girls in education and the economy, and Muther receives no salary.

Now Muther, who holds graduate degrees from Cambridge and Stanford, has brought her mover-and-shaker notions back to Sarah Lawrence, where last fall she taught an economics class titled “Social Entrepreneurship: Models for Intervention in Global Poverty.” Students worked on teams to prepare business cases and present them in front of the class (common practice for MBA students, but not undergraduates), which taught them to analyze and critique the underlying business models of social enterprises.

Many international students took the class and applied their research to real-world problems close to home. Sachi Shah ’15 examined how soap operas in her home country of India affect development and reinforce standards of morality, and Malawi-born Teresa Phiri ’13 wrote about the problem of urbanization and growing slums. Ecuadorian Maria Munoz ’13, whose mother is a nanny in Manhattan, wrote a conference paper on “Lower East Side Nannies:A Socioeconomic Analysis of Women in the Childcare Industry.”

Jackie Assar ’14 appreciated Muther’s real-world connections; the teacher brought several social enterprise leaders to speak to the class. Muther also connected her students to competitions for budding entrepreneurs. In March, Munoz, Shah, Phiri, Assar, and Nyla Khan ’14 made it to the regional finals for the 4th Annual Hult Prize, the world’s largest international business competition and start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship, with a proposal to use aquaponics to produce fresh food in urban slums.