02 Aug 2023

Q+A with New Social Enterprise Initiative Faculty Chair Shawn Cole and New Director Amelia Angella


Headshot college of Professor Shawn Cole and SEI Director Amelia Angella
Social Enterprise Initiative Director Amelia Angella and Social Enterprise Initiative Faculty Chair Shawn Cole. Photo courtesy Russ Campbell.

Following the retirement of Professors Kash Rangan and Dutch Leonard, the Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) has announced a new leadership team, which includes a new faculty chair in Professor Shawn Cole and director, Amelia Angella (MBA 2001), who previously served as interim director for the past six months. We caught up with them to ask about what brought them to their current roles and to Harvard Business School (HBS), their passion for social enterprise, and their goals for SEI going forward.

What’s your background?
Shawn Cole (SC): I grew up in Iowa, though my mother is from Boston. I hold a PhD in economics from MIT and have been on the faculty at HBS since 2005.

Amelia Angella (AA): I started my career at Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit founded by HBS Professor Michael Porter. I then came to HBS as an MBA student and went to work at John Hancock in the bond and corporate finance department, while staying active on nonprofit boards. I did some pro-bono nonprofit consulting work with the Community Action Partners program of the HBS Association of Boston and ended up serving as their executive director for five years. I returned to HBS almost four years ago to develop the alumni engagement work within the Social Enterprise Initiative.

How did you end up at HBS?
SC: In college I decided I wanted to work on the biggest problem in the world, which at that time I identified as global poverty. Were I to choose now, perhaps I would work on climate change. I was strong at economics and went to MIT to do a PhD. I did field work in India, on educational NGOs, and banking. It was an exciting time in economics, as my advisors, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, helped introduce randomized control trials in the field of development economics, and shared a Noble prize in 2021 for the work. In fact, I was lucky enough to write a paper with them, which was included in the Nobel prize citation. But to get a faculty job I had to showcase independent work, so I used my work on the agricultural lending in India to get a job here.

AA: I have been in the HBS orbit for many years, starting with my first job out of college! I quickly saw the power of business to impact social change, and I was hooked. SEI was the main reason I came to HBS as a student, and I have seen its impact on our students, alumni, and the many practitioners and board members who participate in our programs. So, this role feels like a real full circle moment to come back to the place that sparked my interest all those years ago.

What’s a highlight from your time here at HBS?
SC: The greatest strength of HBS to me is the culture—an outsider might think that a group of extremely smart, ambitious folks would mostly concentrate on their own agenda, but I’ve found students and faculty are incredibly curious, fantastically supportive, and genuinely committed to affecting positive change in the world.

I especially enjoy interacting with and learning from practitioners—SEI tackles pretty complex projects, and the tools as a single discipline (such as economics) are often not enough to make substantial progress.

AA: I recently worked on our Executive Education program, Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. That week is always a highlight—meeting wonderful people from around the world who are doing incredibly impactful work, seeing them experience the magic of the HBS classroom and the rich discussions, and sending them off full of insight and inspiration to take back to their organizations.

How are you feeling about taking on this role?
SC: I’m happy to have this opportunity. Much of what was originally “radical” about Social Enterprise is now widely accepted. At the same time, new challenges are arriving and as a society we are only starting to make real progress in tackling other long-standing challenges. So, I see no risk of us becoming irrelevant!

AA: Mainly, I feel honored to be a part of this wonderful community of people working to tackle society’s toughest challenges. The world is full of injustice and the issues we face can feel overwhelming, yet we are surrounded by people who are choosing to spend their time working together to solve difficult problems. I learn from them every day, and it is a privilege to support and elevate their work.

How will you get started? What are some of your initial goals that you plan to work on together?
SC: My first task has been to work with our excellent new director, Amelia, to understand all the great work that SEI is already doing, such as the New Venture Competition. It goes without saying that we must continue to execute well on our flagship strengths, such as non-profit management, and recently launched projects, such as our effort to understand systems change.

In terms of initial new priorities, my working hypothesis is to focus on three. First, we have a tremendous group of junior faculty interested in social enterprise topics, and I would love to figure out how SEI can best support their journey and vision, as well as expand the set of faculty working on these important topics.

Second, I would like to ensure continued strength in our core areas of nonprofit management, while promoting greater cooperation between SEI and the related efforts at HBS, such as the Race, Gender & Equity Initiative, the Business & Environment Initiative, and the Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS).

Finally, as I mentioned before, the idea that firms and organizations can and should solve important social problems is more widely accepted than ever. But the world still faces many challenges, and my hope is that SEI supports our community members to make rapid and meaningful progress.

AA: SEI is at a unique moment in time—we have both a new director and a new faculty chair, after many years of leadership by Professors Dutch Leonard and Kash Rangan. We have a very solid base of research and programs to build on, and we have a wonderful opportunity to use this time to think ahead to the next chapter. We are looking to engage more of the junior faculty in our work and explore innovative approaches to social change including impact investing, entrepreneurship, and systems change.

What do you see as the role of the Social Enterprise Initiative? Why is its work important?
SC: SEI attracts a very broad fraction of the HBS community. The MBA Social Enterprise student club is very popular. And while the percentage of new graduates who immediately enter the sector is in the single digits, an overwhelming majority of our alumni will eventually support nonprofits as board members or in other capacities.

AA: At its core, the SEI’s role is to educate, inspire, and support leaders across all sectors to tackle society’s toughest challenges and make a positive impact on the world. We do this through coursework and career development for our students, influencing and responding to the field through our Executive Education programs, and lifelong learning programs with our alumni who engage in social impact activities at various stages of their personal and professional lives. I see this work as critically important to developing and supporting leaders who will change the world for the better.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
SC: I spend a lot of time with family, including my wife, who has taught at Harvard Kennedy School, now works for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and our three girls. I also enjoy reading and travel, and lately have been playing a lot of tennis.

AA: Like Shawn, I love to play tennis, take long walks with my dog Buckley, and spend time with my husband (who I met as a student at HBS!) and our three kids. Life is good.

What is your favorite book and movie?
SC: I love to read, and books have been profoundly influential on how I live my life. Some of Peter Singer’s work helped push me to study development economics, and I gave up meat for a decade after reading Diet for a Small Planet. Right now, I’m reading a biography of Arthur Ashe.

AA: It is hard to pick just one favorite, but I loved reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming and her observations on marriage, motherhood, and building a life of meaning. My favorite movie is Home Alone because I watch it every year with my family to kick off our holiday season traditions. We eat popcorn and laugh a lot—it never gets old!

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