In this Social Impact Course, Students Chart Their Own Path
The new Social Impact Lab allows Booth students to work alongside nonprofits to tackle real-world social sector challenges.
- By May 10, 2021
- Social Impact
When Catherine Jefferys signed up for the Social Impact Lab, a project-based course at Chicago Booth, she was eager to explore social impact in a real-world setting. Jefferys had prior experience as an attorney in London and knew the course would allow her to work with a UK-based investment fund focused on increasing housing resources for underprivileged populations.
“I was interested in how finance can be used as a source of good,” she said.
Throughout the quarter, Jefferys worked alongside seven classmates to help build out a framework for measuring and scaling the impact of a new Women in Safe Homes fund for UK-based property investor Patron Capital. The solution is meant to allow social impact investors to create affordable and safe homes for women experiencing homelessness, survivors of domestic abuse, or those with complex financial needs.
Jefferys participated in the new lab course taught by Christina Hachikian, AB ’02, MBA ’07, clinical associate professor of strategic management at Chicago Booth. Social Impact Lab is also supported by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, Booth’s hub for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems.
“Professor Hachikian put together a great team with different backgrounds and our complementary skills let us learn from one another and deliver better recommendations.”
The Social Impact Lab is a dynamic course. On the one hand, each course follows the same framework and students apply their analytic skills to help an organization answer a particular question around topics such as market expansion, impact measurement approaches, or scalability. On the other hand, course themes and organization participants vary by quarter, which allows Professor Hachikian to respond to student interests around social impact. “As part of our approach to business education, labs offer the chance for our students to use the finance, economics, and operations skills they are learning in a low-risk environment,” she said. “We teach them to try out those lessons before they apply them in the real world.”
The idea for this particular offering of the course began with a real-world problem. Keith Breslauer, ’88, managing director of Patron Capital, approached Hachikian to consider a project-based offering for analyzing the fund’s approach to measurement and replicability. The idea was for MBA students to get a firsthand look at the complexities involved with a fund of this nature, while helping the Patron team to build out their approach. “We are creating a model that has two dynamics—it works as an investable product and will have a measurable impact,” said Breslauer, a member of the Rustandy Center’s advisory council.
To date, Patron has raised $35 million for the Women in Safe Homes fund, added five charity partners who act as tenants and provide support for women who suffer domestic abuse, and is in the process of acquiring 20 properties, he said. Breslauer hoped the course would allow the company to validate their approach to the social impact space while giving students hands-on experience. “I hope the project challenged the students, and I hope they enjoyed it,” he said. “I expected of them what I expect of myself.”
“You can turn the courses into rich learning opportunities about the challenges of actual social impact—from a pedagogical perspective, these are really hard topics.”
Oftentimes, students accepted into the lab course have relevant prior experience, which allows for a more dynamic class environment, Hachikian said, as do guest speakers who add context around specific topics. This spring, students worked on one-off projects with two other organizations: the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness, an international alliance to promote eye health, and American Rivers, a nonprofit focused on clean water and healthy rivers.
“You can turn the courses into rich learning opportunities about the challenges of actual social impact—from a pedagogical perspective, these are really hard topics,” she said.
Full-Time Booth student Burke Sims, who also worked alongside Jefferys on the Patron Capital fund, said the experience was valuable because of how Hachikian structured the course and paired students of varying experience levels. “Professor Hachikian put together a great team with different backgrounds and our complementary skills let us learn from one another and deliver better recommendations,” said Sims.
Ultimately, the course gave him a front-row seat to an emerging industry. “The industry is young—there’s still no consensus on how to best balance market returns with social impact so it was exciting to help Patron answer this question,” says Sims, who will be working in real estate private equity after graduating in June.
For Jefferys, the course experience inspired her to consider pursuing a full-time role in the social impact investing space after she graduates from the Part-Time Booth program in June. “This lab was game-changing,” she said. “I had been involved in finance and the for-profit world, but seeing all these tools being used in the nonprofit space was quite the takeaway.”
Note: Top photo provided by the Rustandy Center, taken prior to 2020.