Social Entrepreneurship in Global Health: When Business and Humanitarianism Mix

Authored by: Student Guest Bloggers Jennifer Long and Rachel Park

We were generously funded by the Office of International Program Development at Northwestern to attend Unite for Sight’s annual Global Health conference on April 17-18, 2010 at Yale University, where we were exposed to a variety of viewpoints and business propositions in the realm of global health. The conference brings together students, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, academics, and field workers from all over the world to network and discuss global health issues. The conference material ranged from keynote speeches by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and current Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, who bashed rich countries’ propensity toward military spending and away from global funding, to leaders of international health IT firms to 5-minute entrepreneurial pitches.  Seth Godin, prolific business book author and entrepreneur, had an especially amusing speech culminating with, “Just because you’re a non-profit doesn’t mean you’re good,” pointing out the negative externalities and opportunity costs associated with funding projects in the developing world.

While I enjoyed the keynote speakers, my favorite part of the conference was attending the entrepreneurial pitches.  Each presenter had 5 minutes to pitch their idea, followed by 5 minutes of intense interrogation from the audience.  Ideas ranged from low-cost in-vitro fertilization clinics in Africa to packaging U.S. citizens into groups and completely privatizing health insurance.  Many of the audiences forced the social entrepreneurs to be realistic.  A portion of the entrepreneurs pitching business ideas for developing countries had never spent more than a week or two in such an area and their business plans showed it!  The stark cultural gap and unrealistic expectations of U.S. and European citizens working in developing countries causes many good ideas to come to an end—business simply does not function the same way when people operate on “African time!” (“African time” refers to the loose schedule and frequent tardiness of Africans).

A major theme of the conference was building public-private partnerships as a part of enterprises in developing countries.  A movement for medical innovation through private funding may require government participation; a non-profit may generate more social welfare as a for-profit arm of a public company.  In general, for a U.S. nonprofit working abroad, partnering with a private organization and hiring locals delivers public goods at scale while creating jobs.  Not only does it reap the benefits of the non-profit and for-profit sectors, it is more sustainable to teach developing countries how to help themselves.

Jenn: As an MMSS/Econ major who spent the majority of fall quarter practicing case interviews and attending networking sessions with consulting firms, it was both a blessing and a shock to leave Evanston for the winter to collect data in Uganda for my senior thesis.  The years of studying economics at Northwestern have certainly made their impact–I organize my “Favorites” list in my phone by descending frequency of outgoing calls to maximize efficiency!—and  I hope to someday make an impact of my own on the world by applying the mathematical models and business tools I have learned to the realm of international health.

Rachel: When I took my first global health course at Northwestern, I fell in love with the field immediately because it incorporated my existing ideas and opinions about interdisciplinary study, social justice, and cross-sector partnerships. I studied abroad on the Public Health in Europe program at Sciences Po Paris, where the fantastic curriculum on comparative health policy helped me get my post-graduation job at Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm, in their Health & Life Sciences practice.

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