After founding his company Mihir Shah had little capital and did not foresee bringing in any revenue for months. What kept him going during this touch and go period? “We saved 50 lives that first six months,” Shah (pictured right) said during a recent panel discussion organized by Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business Laurence A. Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship in Technology.
The event, part of the Baiada Center’s Entrepreneurial Breakfast Series, was attended by more than 130 people from the business and academic community. Titled “Purpose Driven Entrepreneurs: Combining the Heart of Business With the Heart of the Community,” the event focused on social entrepreneurs – people who use business techniques to create organizations that make money while advancing a cause in which they believe. While some social entrepreneurs head nonprofit organizations, others, like Shah, run for-profit companies.
A 2000 Drexel graduate, Shah founded United Electronics Inc. in 2003 to try to bring life-changing technology from the United States to India. He started the firm with just enough funds for a trip to India. While there he scored meetings with leading cardiologists and demonstrated a device developed at Drexel that allows noninvasive detection of potentially fatal hematomas. Though it took a year for him to make his first sale, Shah said he was convinced during that first trip to India that his business provided an important service that would help people in both India and the United States.
While the United States has a huge pool of scientists and engineers creating potentially lifesaving products, the economic and regulatory barriers to bringing them to market are significant. India, meanwhile, has a huge pool of English speaking doctors and a growing healthcare industry that is hungry for innovative products. “You can test a product about seven times faster (in India),” Shah said.
“I like to make a difference,” he added. “Anyone can make money.”
But does the belief you are making a difference actually increase the chance that your company will succeed? At the very least, if employees at all levels of an organization buy into the mission, it can be a great motivation for people to work hard, panelists said.
Guy DeRossi, another panelist, said he has worked for several for-profit companies that were unprofitable, while the not-for-profit he has run for years has remained profitable. He is senior director for Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, which employs more than 300 people, a large majority of whom are blind.
The main goal of DeRossi’s organization is to empower blind people by training them to get around despite their handicap and providing much needed jobs. Even though his group is nonprofit, DeRossi said it strives to always make a profit and to increase sales by 10 percent each year. “The more sales we have, the more people we can employ,” he explained.
Belinda Moore, who heads Bestwork Industries for the Blind, Inc. and was also on the panel, said 70 percent of blind people are unemployed and “creating a real job (for them) requires us to act like a real business.”
Her firm “has to compete head to head” with other companies to land contracts despite having blind employees, she said.
Other panelists included James Munson, president of Research in Action; and Barrie Litzky, an assistant professor of management and organization at Penn State.
Asked whether social entrepreneurship seemed to resonate with today’s MBA students, Litzky, whose Ph.D. is from Drexel, said it seemed to be catching on, though it was by no means the only motive behind getting an MBA. “They’re starting to think in terms of “how can my business skills make the world a better place – and send my kids to college (and) pay for my retirement,” she said.
In introducing the panel Mark Loschiavo, executive director of the Baiada Center, suggested that both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds could learn something from each other. “Perhaps by joining capitalism with creative passion we can join the for-profit and nonprofit elements to merge money with mission and make a bigger difference in the world,” he said.
Through events like the Breakfast Series, and by helping companies bring innovations to market, the Baiada Center works towards advancing its mission of boosting the regional economy, said LeBow College Dean George Tsetsekos. He cited a recent study that calculated Drexel University has an annual impact of $1.6 billion on the state of Pennsylvania.
Audience member Greg Schweitzer said he could relate to the social entrepreneurs on the panel because he is one himself. An alumnus of Drexel’s Commerce and Engineering program, he is a former engineer who changed careers and now works with corporations, individuals and organization on ways to reduce stress, including meditation. “I really need to feel like I’m making a difference in the world and all those people on the panel felt that they were making a difference in the world,” Schweitzer said. “That is what drives them, and that is what drives me, too.”
More information on the Baiada Center is at www.lebow.drexel.edu/baiada.