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Business Schools Serving as Catalysts for Innovation

Schools from our 2020 Innovations That Inspire challenge are preparing grads who can develop and lead successful enterprises—and impact their communities.

Business schools have long expanded their mission beyond educating future management professionals. Today, they bolster their contribution to society by supporting economic development and challenging the limitations to social empowerment. Business educators around the world aim to help their students become the drivers of positive social change and embody progressive approaches to leadership.

Highlights from this year’s Innovations That Inspire challenge demonstrate how business educators and students can work together to develop creative and engaging initiatives that will have a long-lasting impact in their communities. Through leading-edge programs and proactive solutions, these business schools inspire change and serve as catalysts for innovation.

The Underground Agency

Northern Kentucky University, Haile/US Bank College of Business

Preparing students for fulfilling and purposeful lives is one of the fundamental values of the higher education system. Meaningful college experiences can not only help future graduates secure gainful job placements but also prepare them for a lifelong career of personal growth and well-being. Recognizing this need, the Haile/US Bank College of Business created such an experience by turning three college classrooms into an engine of socioeconomic growth and empowerment.

The Underground Agency is a nonprofit, student-owned marketing strategy firm that helps local businesses develop fresh and creative marketing solutions and better connect with Generation Z and millennials. The agency is fully integrated into three business courses that aim to resemble the real-world environment. Thus, the syllabus is transformed into a job description, students are turned into employees, and classrooms become a collaborative office space. Further, students—now the employees—engage in client projects that produce tangible, measurable evidence for work competencies and an entrepreneurial mindset.

In addition, the agency supports the professional development of students by providing them with career coaching opportunities and a collaborative networking system for current and former employees. The program also leverages the power of social media platforms to share stories about success and improve engagement across the networking environment.

Upon completing the program, many students reported securing fulfilling and gainful jobs. Moreover, they managed to create substantial value for local businesses. For instance, the agency employees helped one of its startup clients penetrate a highly competitive market space and make its products available nationwide. Through meaningful experience and practical opportunities, the Underground Agency successfully fulfills its mission of helping students discover their post-graduation path and find the courage to pursue it.

Markets 4 Makers Fostering Tribal Micro-Businesses

T.A. Pai Management Institute

With its Markets 4 Makers program, the T.A. Pai Management Institute (TAPMI) provides a new perspective on how business schools can deliver structural change to society.

The tribal Koraga community in the state of Karnataka in India has been oppressed and socially neglected for the past several decades. Besides agriculture, the traditional enterprise of basket-weaving represented their only economic activity. However, the rapid growth of the service industry reduced market demand for the craft. As a result, part of the Koraga youth shifted to working as unskilled labor on construction sites, leading to a massive loss of skill and opportunity as well as poor social decisions in the community.

Over the past year, students at T.A. Pai Management Institute and the TAMPI Centre for Inclusive Growth and Competitiveness (TCIG&C) started working with the Koraga community to optimize the value chain of their basket-weaving activity. The organization’s approach was centered on innovating both the crafting technique and the final product. The initial weaving process used by the Koraga community was rudimentary and resulted in a narrow basket assortment with low added value. To strengthen the demand for the product, TCIG&C invited a Karnataka-based social enterprise, CraftsMantra, to develop a portfolio of aesthetically pleasing and eco-friendly handcrafted baskets that are also well-adapted to modern urban tastes.

In addition, TCIG&C started working with professional interior and home improvement designers to ensure the market-readiness and competitive sustainability of the product portfolio. The organization has also co-opted the Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP), a Government of India initiative, to come in as a financier and help enhance the community’s skill on the supply side.

Finally, TCIG&C committed to improving the social environment in the region. In the framework of the program, 12 tribal youth were trained to hand-create market-demanded products, and they now act as role models demonstrating profitable microentrepreneurship to the rest of the community.

The Markets 4 Makers program has significantly contributed to the empowerment of the Koraga community. The program has provided Koraga microentrepreneurs with the ability to better recognize business development opportunities and has provided the broader community an enhanced understanding of the value addition process. Today, the initiative aims to further facilitate the development of the region by attracting multisector partners and helping local entrepreneurs improve their supply chain and inventory management skills.

Business in Conflict Areas Research (BICAR)

American University of Beirut, Suliman S. Olayan School of Business

The Business in Conflict Areas Research (BICAR) initiative of the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business changes the landscape of economic and social development by supporting entrepreneurial startups and innovation in war-torn regions. Through its research and community-oriented activities, the program contributes to poverty reduction and peacebuilding in the areas where it is needed most.

In conflict-affected regions, local entrepreneurs offer the only means of employment for a large part of the population. They not only deliver goods and services that are often limited during crisis but also foster social cohesion through normal business operations. For refugees and internally displaced persons, the ability to start and grow a business represents an opportunity to reduce financial hardship and socially integrate within the new community.

Seeing the prospects for community empowerment, humanitarian organizations developed programs focused on facilitating businesses in conflict settings. However, without having sufficient business knowledge, these agencies were often unintentionally funding entrepreneurs focused only on earning basic income for their families, rather than fostering employment opportunities and improving the overall economic environment in the community.

BICAR’s members from both academia and practice leverage their expertise in entrepreneurship to help humanitarian organizations enhance the selection process and support programs being deployed in conflict areas. The organizations BICAR is actively working with include the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Through the local staff and research assistants of these partner agencies, BICAR surveyed over 700 refugees, internally displaced persons, and host community businesses across nine business-based livelihood programs in Iraq and Lebanon.

Based on the collected data and extracted findings, BICAR has prepared research papers that have been published in scholarly journals and presented at multiple conferences. One of BICAR’s papers, “Entrepreneurship, Poverty Reduction, and Peace: Exploring Transformative Entrepreneurship in Conflict Zones,” won the Best Paper Award at the International Council for Small Businesses conference. Moreover, the organization generated five reports for UNIDO, which have been used to improve business-based livelihood programs in Lebanon and Iraq.

The BICAR initiative is a compelling example of how a business school can contribute to the economic development of society on a global scale. Through its proactive, non-political actions and support of business growth in conflict regions, the program helps ensure sustainable livelihoods to vulnerable communities and facilitate the peacebuilding efforts of international organizations.

A Lasting Impression

These schools offer just a sampling of the myriad ways business schools are elevating entrepreneurial mindsets and new business creation. Schools are using their wide-ranging areas of expertise—from finance to supply chain to marketing—to support their communities and prepare graduates who can develop and lead successful enterprises. Business education’s role as catalysts for innovation provides a solid foundation as we transform the world for good, and it will be exciting to see what comes next.

About Innovations That Inspire

Since its launch in 2016, Innovations That Inspire has collected more than 950 innovative practices across a variety of themes and areas within business education. For each challenge year, a selection of innovations is featured at the International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM). Further, current members of AACSB’s Business Education Alliance have the ability to browse through all innovations using DataDirect. AACSB continuously highlights submitted examples in publications, events, presentations, and in other media as examples of business schools doing innovative things that push the boundaries of business education.


Karina Podymova, AACSB International Marketing and Communications Intern, master's student, business analytics and information systems from the University of South Florida Muma College of BusinessKarina Podymova is a marketing and communications intern at AACSB International, earning her master's degree in business analytics and information systems from the University of South Florida Muma College of Business.