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Social Enterprise Academy brings together theory and practice in business world

By Suzy Strutner

May 4, 2012 1:39 a.m.

During fall quarter, UCLA economics professor Andrew Atkeson envisioned a class that would give students a chance to apply classroom lessons in the real business world.

With the help of three students, Atkeson spent last fall developing the Social Enterprise Academy, a two-quarter course in which students act as consultants for companies with philanthropic aims.

During the course’s first quarter this winter, undergraduate students attended a series of seminars on how to formulate a business plan, complete demographics research and devise marketing campaigns. Teams of four to five students were assigned to a local business and, at the end of the quarter, pitched a business plan for their company to a panel of judges.

The panelists judged the teams’ projects on creativity, quality of research and their level of organization. The winning team received $10,000 to use during the internship phase of the course, which takes place throughout spring quarter.

Third-year business economics student Gordon Xu and his teammates won the inaugural prize for their work with Student Voice Project, an organization that installs writing programs in Los Angeles schools.

“You learn so much about economics concepts in class, but you normally don’t get to apply them until you graduate,” Xu said. “Working with Student Voice (Project) helped me see why I’m learning what I learn in school.”

The Student Voice Project trains educators to teach journalism more effectively. Yet before the UCLA students stepped in, training sessions were offered for free and staffed entirely by volunteers.

To make the program less reliant on donations and volunteers, the UCLA team suggested a system in which private schools would pay for the training sessions but teachers from poorer public schools would receive training for free.

Revenue from the new model will allow the Student Voice Project to expand to other schools at a faster rate and more quickly achieve its goal of installing quality writing programs in every high-need Los Angeles school, said Johnny Duda, the project’s executive director.

The willingness of the UCLA students to work hard and their experience in areas like investment banking were likely responsible for the popularity of their plan with the class’s judges, Duda said.

Claudia Sangster, one of the judges from the panel, said she was pleased to see alumni and local business owners encouraging a student interest in socially-minded business. Sangster cofounded a company that evaluates nonprofits and determines the best places to invest. She said she rated the students’ business plans as she would those in her real workplace. The Student Voice Project’s team stood out because of the creativity of their plan, extensive market research and organized management, Sangster said.

“Yes, the students are young, and yes, they’re still in training, but they’re passionate about these businesses,” she said. “I think their models have a good shot at actually playing out in the real world.”

Fourth-year political science student Ilsa Levine is working with BTS Communications ““ a marketing agency that employs people recovering from drug addiction as interns ““ as part of the class.

This quarter, Levine and her teammates researched the company’s competitors, determined price points and designed a media kit to make BTS more accessible to the press.

Levine said she is considering a career in consulting and that her experience in the class gave her an insight into her possible career.

“I’ve always been interested in furthering a social mission through business,” Levine said. “Making a business plan is more sustainable than just relying on donations, and that’s the premise behind this class.”

Leaders at BTS Communications have benefitted from the students’ input, said Steve Bell, the agency’s business development director.

Bell said his company has struggled to figure out how to use its philanthropic aim as a marketing tool to differentiate itself from more established Los Angeles agencies. He was impressed with the UCLA team’s professionalism while tackling the issue, he said.

The Social Enterprise Academy also fosters UCLA’s alumni relations, Atkeson said, because each team of students receives mentorship from a UCLA Anderson School of Management alumnus.

He added that he plans to make a few changes to the program but expects to offer it as a class again next winter through spring quarters.

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