On a campus bustling with activists, it’s easy to tap into the spirit of philanthropy and enthusiasm for social change. For those looking to channel this passion into a nonprofit business venture, or those trying to join the ranks of student leaders who are already doing so, the first place to go is the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
The Patricelli Center is housed in the basement of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. Founded last spring through a gift from the Robert [Patricelli ’61] and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation, the Center provides resources and networking opportunities to students and alumni interested in starting nonprofit enterprises.
Now in its second semester, the Patricelli Center is already a campus presence, offering workshops, grants, counseling, and internship opportunities to aspiring social entrepreneurs.
The Center also offers extensive networking opportunities, drawing from connections to alumni involved in civic engagement. Its Board of Advisors includes alumni involved in prominent social enterprises, in addition to several members of Wesleyan’s faculty.
According to the Center’s Civic Engagement Coordinator and Career Counselor Paul Gagnon, part of the value of having a center devoted to the pursuit of social entrepreneurship is that it offers students a chance to develop business skills not typically taught in classes.
“We’re providing opportunities for students to develop skills of what I call a practical benefit, in areas that they might not necessarily get exposure to in their traditional Wesleyan classroom setting,” Gagnon said.
To facilitate this type of training, the Patricelli Center holds workshops and seminars at regular intervals that are open to all students. The workshop scheduled for this Thursday, Oct. 25, called “Entrepreneurship Self-Assessment,” will help attendees gauge whether they have what it takes to start up their own business.
The Center has also worked closely with a number of nonprofit groups on campus, including Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), the MINDS Foundation, and Brighter Dawns.
“Many of [these groups] actually predate the establishment of the Center, but the Center has helped [to] provide resources to those groups over the course of our first semester here and going forward,” Gagnon said.
President and CEO of SHOFCO Kennedy Odede ’12 said he was grateful for the Patricelli Center and the work it does to help organizations such as his.
“We will reach over 35,000 people in the Kibera slum this year through healthcare, clean water, community empowerment, and economic development programs,” Odede wrote in an email to The Argus. “This simply wouldn’t have been possible if the Patricelli family did not believe in the bold vision that change is possible even in places like Kibera, where the problems sometime seem insurmountable.”
Raghu Appasani ’12, founder and CEO of the MINDS Foundation, noted that the Patricelli Center has offered him helpful business planning advice and connections with alumni since its establishment.
“The Patricelli Center has been really helpful with networking,” he said.
Connections with alumni are vital to the Patricelli Center’s endeavors. Since its founding, the Center has hosted several alumni guest speakers. The first speaker was Sasha Chanoff ’94, executive director of RefugePoint, a nonprofit offering assistance to refugees in Africa.
Lara Galinsky ’96 ran a workshop hosted by the Patricelli Center last year centered on finding studnets’ passion.
“It was a workshop-oriented process where students tried to do a self-assessment and identify with what Lara calls ‘heart, head, hustle,’” Gagnon recalled. “The three of those combined to help a student identify what it is that they think they might want to do with their career and their life. Outside of the Career Center, I’m not sure that there’s any other place on campus where a student would’ve been able to have that kind of exposure to that kind of program.”
The Center also offers summer internships to Wesleyan students. Applicants put together proposals to work for specific social enterprise organizations or to start their own projects, and their applications are then reviewed by the Center.
Additionally, the Patricelli Center offers grants for various student endeavors. It has a seed grant fund for student leaders seeking capital to start new social enterprises, and it also offers grants on a competitive basis for students to participate in off-campus social entrepreneurship training programs.
Gagnon said that he hopes students will talk to him if they have ideas for organizations or projects they want to start. He outlined the steps he would take in guiding a student through hir ideas.
“We’d be able to discuss it, and we’d be able to talk through some of the pertinent points that you’re trying to achieve,” he said. “I’d ask you to convince me why you want to pursue this. Convince me of your passion, and convince me of the underlying application to the nature of the problem you’re trying to address in the first place. Then I’d encourage you to make use of the workshops.”
Gagnon added that the Center would work to connect a student with alumni, potentially find a mentor to help determine a direction for the project, and offer assistance with business mechanics like marketing and accounting.
Above all, Gagnon said he wants the Patricelli Center to be a “home away from home” for aspiring social entrepreneurs.
“Last spring, I’d say that this room acted as a clubhouse for a number of students because they were working on their company projects here, and that’s precisely the kind of environment that we want to foster and facilitate here,” he said.
Co-president of Wesleyan’s chapter of the MINDS Foundation Ian Johnson ’13 expressed his appreciation for the Center’s resources.
“We use the office space in there for all of our small meetings,” Johnson said. “Having the Patricelli Center also provides support and confidence for student entrepreneurship and collaboration.”
“The office space in the Patricelli Center has been crucial for working late nights,” he said.
Gagnon said that the number of non-profit campus groups is a testament to student dedication to social change.
“It’s remarkable, the capability these students possess and their determination to get something done,” Gagnon said. “They’re so committed to making things happen—making a difference.”
In a WesSeminar presentation on Oct. 18th, Gagnon cited data indicating that students these days are more interested than ever in careers involving civic engagement. A report done by Net Impact showed that 58 percent of students nationwide are willing to take a pay cut to work for an organization with values similar to their own.
The same report found that a majority of students are confident that their work will eventually make a positive difference in the world.
“When this generation cannot find a socially conscious job uniquely right for them, they create one,” Gagnon said.
Additionally, Gagnon noted that in 2004 only about 20 colleges in the United States had a course or program focused on social entrepreneurship. Now, that figure is estimated to exceed 200. In some schools, social entrepreneurship comprises an entire department.
Though there are many factors contributing to this attitude among young people, Gagnon said that it largely has to do with more students trying to link their passions to their career paths.
“I think more and more young people are recognizing that there’s this need to do something that is larger than oneself,” he said. “I think that the students are seeing more than just being an individual or a cog in the wheel, and they’re trying to find something that more inspires their passions.”
Gagnon said that beyond this generation’s inclinations toward social enterprise, Wesleyan in particular tends to generate lots of social entrepreneurs.
“It seems like it’s just natural for Wesleyan to support this kind of activity and this kind of endeavor from a student’s perspective,” he said.