Given the concentration of colleges and universities in the Philadelphia region, the city is poised to become a leader in social enterprise and impact investment.
That is, if Sherryl Kuhlman is right.
Kuhlman, managing director at Wharton Social Impact Initiative, stands by a 2013 Cone Communications study that states millennials have an innate need to share information. The hunger to know more about everything and never disconnect from the world around us — that’s what Kuhlman believes makes the millennial generation the ultimate champions of social change.
“These were the kids that were raised on dolphin-free tuna, anti-smoking campaigns, anti-litter campaigns and Alex’s Lemonade,” Kuhlman said. Social impact, she said, is “in the air millennials grew up with.”
Last month, Kuhlman saw this first hand when the Wharton Social Venture Fund took home an impact investment aware at the MIINT finals.
This year’s MIINT (MBA Impact Investment Network and Training) finals pitted teams of students from eleven universities against each other in a live pitch event, the culmination of a year’s worth of sourcing and analyzing early-stage startups with a social mission. WSVF, Wharton’s student-run impact investment fund, was named runner-up in the “Best Impact Investment” category by backing Care at Hand, Inc., a platform for reducing hospital re-admissions.
“Clearly, more and more entrepreneurs and individuals are looking towards for-profit models to address social challenges,” Kuhlman said. “They’re seeing this as a way to use their business skills to create sustainable business that also have a deeply embedded social mission.”
WSFV operates independently from WSII as an affiliated group, but Kuhlman and WSII provide the student-run fund with advice and guidance.
“They’re very much student-run and that’s an extremely important part of the fund, and very much has to do with the success of it,” she said.
Measuring the Impact of Impact Investing
WSII was launched in early 2010 as a vehicle for driving social impact across Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. The organization is charged with making use of Wharton’s capital to focus on impact investing initiatives. They’re also responsible for taking advantage of the university’s deep rolodex in order to bring external organizations into the fold.
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Right now, WSII is working with major groups, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and European Family Offices, on measurement initiatives. According to Kuhlman, utilizing data analytics to measure impact is on the forefront of WSII’s agenda.
“When we’re thinking about impact investing, we’re thinking about what kind of research we can get, what kind of data we can collect and how we can get a firm grounding for this activity,” she said. “We’re working with organizations that are really trying to figure out how to make this measurement happen.”
Kuhlman, who is coming up on her fifth year with Wharton Social Impact Initiative, said the idea of creating a “socially-conscious” business has drastically changed since she began with the organization. There’s now an increased sophistication surrounding approaches to addressing social change: What used to be canned food and coat drives have evolved into sustainable, accountable and innovative solutions.
“The students I see, they are looking at these daunting social challenges and saying, ‘I bet I can do something around that,’” she said. “They’re seeing it as a challenge, an opportunity, a way to innovate and be creative.”
According to Kuhlman, Philadelphia has all the necessary tools it needs to build itself into a beacon for social change — a growing community of social entrepreneurs with access to venture capital and universities churning out socially-conscious millennials.
“The pieces are there for Philadelphia to really become a center for social entrepreneurship,” Kuhlman said. “We just need to pull the pieces together in more organized ways.”
Image via Wharton Social Impact Initiative