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The Class: Global Social Impact Practicum

Caroline Grossman
Caroline Grossman, ’03, is adjunct assistant professor of strategy and director of programs at Chicago Booth’s social impact hub, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.

The Background

In 2015 I led a convening at the University of Chicago Center in Delhi to discuss research and ideas around India’s sanitation initiatives. From those connections came the idea for the Global Social Impact Practicum (GSIP).

Over the past five years, four organizations—the Rustandy Center, the Tata Centre for Development (TCD) at UChicago, social impact incubator Social Alpha, and Tata Trusts, one of India’s largest and oldest philanthropic organizations—came together to answer one question: Could Booth students be engaged to tackle some of India’s most intractable social problems?

That one question led to more questions. How? Which problems? Which students? In India or in the classroom? What about implementation? What about work already underway? As our plans came into focus, we all knew that the size of the problems would take all our contacts, knowledge, and varied approaches. The logistics alone demanded collaboration across 8,000 miles.

“The initial idea was that Tata Trusts would pose a problem, and the students would go to India in search of possible answers.”

— Caroline Grossman

The Rustandy Center supports lab classes in social impact that combine Booth’s business fundamentals with experiential learning and research. It’s a mix of coaching and in-class lectures, and it’s an amazing way to learn and to teach. We imagined GSIP as a way to bring the Rustandy Center’s ethos—“Doing good is worth doing well”—to life in the classroom.

The Approach

The initial idea was that Tata Trusts would pose a problem, and the students would go to India in search of possible answers. This class has evolved over the four years since we started. We now work with an engineering-school partner that is already at work on a technical solution to the problem. Last year we worked with MIT. This year we’ll work within the UChicago ecosystem with the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and Argonne National Laboratory.

We’re always looking for projects that students can wrap their heads around in a 10-week quarter. These are enormous problems, so being able to break them down into workable projects is the first step. We firm up the projects by August. Students apply in the second week of Autumn Quarter and we select 15 to 16 from among the applicants. With that number of students, we’re able to tackle three or four different projects each time.

The Experience

For the first time this year we are splitting the class between two quarters. This was a student’s idea. I had always wanted more time with the students before we go to India. Now, because our science partners are all at the University of Chicago, we will do the first half in the final five weeks of Autumn Quarter and finish with five weeks at the beginning of Winter Quarter.

In the break between the quarters, the core of GSIP, is a one-week fact-finding trip to India. The idea is to do firsthand industry and customer discovery with people who are already working on interventions. The course coach, Sundeep Vira, ’10 (AXP-9), does a great deal of up-front work to make our trip as productive as possible. Sundeep is a long-time NGO leader and has experience working in India on issues including access to clean water. We spend some time in a state capitol, and then go out to villages, where we are able to talk to farmers, community leaders, NGOs involved in interventions there, government officials, stakeholders, and social entrepreneurs.

The first year, one group of students investigated whether wild bamboo could be a natural fuel source for rural electrification. The next year, a group looked at the economics behind waste management in slums. Year three focused on four water projects. Last year, we looked for the product market fit for a urine test for tuberculosis. Our project with the two Pritzker schools in 2019 will focus on a water-quality sensor. Another project will come from the Argonne National Laboratory.

Without a partner on the ground, the trip would be impossible. Connecting the students with partners in India allows them to learn so much more about the issues at hand and provide richer recommendations at the end.

The Classwork

Back in the classroom the students work on a scalable enterprise solution, leveraging the engineering school technologies and the evidence they gathered on the trip. I introduce them to the social impact sector in India—the roles of social enterprise, nonprofits, philanthropy, and corporations. We thread government throughout.

Sometimes there is a project that doesn’t have a product-market fit. That is potentially the strongest lesson of all, as it has the potential to channel resources into more impactful work.

The metaphor I use is a maze. Each group of three or four students works on one project. Each is on its own path. They’ll all hit obstacles or dead ends. All will have to pivot. But ultimately, they arrive at solutions together. It provides a real glimpse into what it’s like to work in social impact in an emerging-market context.

The Final Project

At the end of the course the students make a final presentation to all of the year’s partners. There are essentially three possible outcomes for the course. First, Social Alpha wants to know whether there is a product market fit for the technology—if not, Tata Trusts can focus its philanthropy elsewhere. Second, a Booth student could cofound a startup with an engineering student and take the idea to scale. The third possibility is that someone else could take up the business plan and see it through to implementation.

What we’ve done with GSIP is leverage the people who can have an impact on some of India’s most pressing problems while providing rich learning opportunities for our students. They learn a tremendous amount and gain a new view of the world. This is a learning experience in a domain that they would never have access to.

From the Coach

Sundeep Vira, ’10 (AXP-9): I came to Booth to change careers from asset management to social entrepreneurship, and have made startups my specialty. India is homecourt advantage for me. GSIP gives me the ability to translate all the knowledge centers that we learned at Booth into actionable solutions. We are designing businesses that can scale and have an impact on the double bottom line. Last year, a Tata Trusts partner from a few years ago visited Chicago and told us that many of the recommendations we made on our waste management project had been implemented. It had affected thousands of people. We were thrilled, of course, and so were the students who had done the work.

From a Student

Hind Hassan, ’19: My family is from Sudan, so I had seen poverty before, but grad school can be something of a bubble. Some of the farmers whom we visited and talked to about the soil-testing device we were working on are untouchables. No one even speaks to them. Here was a group of students who had come all the way from America to ask them questions. It was very humbling. 

Perhaps the biggest lesson was learning to deal with ambiguity. My background is in investment banking, where all the data is there already. In India there was often no data. That ability to work from a position of uncertainty in another culture on a mission-critical project is something that will be valuable to the sort of career I want.