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Meet the Faculty

Interview with Birgitta Schwartz

“To thrive as a social entrepreneur, you have to be passionate about a particular issue and you have to be ready to follow through and sacrifice certain comforts.”

Birgitta Schwartz has been involved with SSES since the spring of 2014. Throughout the years she has served as the Course Director for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries and also taught the course Social Entrepreneurship. Before joining SSES, she spent decades working on issues of sustainability and sustainable development, both as a teacher and a researcher, in Sweden and abroad. She wrote her doctoral thesis in 1997 on organizations’ environmental strategies and how companies such as Volvo and The Body Shop deal with environmental requirements. We sat her down to ask her some questions about the topic, why it matters and what she enjoys most about teaching.

Name: Birgitta Schwartz
Title: Course Director for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries

Why should a student apply to your course?
This course is great for those students who have an interest in development issues or want to learn more about the world of social entrepreneurship. It’s also a chance for students to get a deeper understanding of the problems of the global world, explore what it’s like to work for a non-profit organization and learn how to combine financial profit with a wider social mission. The course is different than your average entrepreneurship course in that it tends to create new problems rather than generate solutions. This is due to the fact that we think a lot in systems. Before introducing your idea into the world, you have to stop and think critically: could my service create new problems? what might be the consequences? what are the unintended ripple effects that might be set in motion?

What can a student expect to learn from your course?
They will focus on one social or environmental challenge and attempt to solve it. In order to do so, they will have to understand how the problem is being perpetuated, who the people are benefiting from the inequality and what power structures are in place that maintain the status quo. Many students taking the course are themselves from developing countries and I always encourage them to focus on their country of origin. That way, the group immediately get access to a wealth of knowledge about the situation in order to better understand the underlying issues. But clearly, it’s not an easy task to accomplish in a couple of weeks. You have to go deep into the norms and values of that society, pay attention to the structures guiding human behavior and try to reveal the invisible forces holding the problem in place. For me, this course is more about teaching students how to think about a challenge, than to actually implement a solution.

Students can also expect mandatory attendance. This might seem old-fashioned, but throughout my career as a teacher, I have seen the huge difference it makes when everyone is in the classroom together and commit a couple of hours every week. Part of the magic happens in the self-selection of ambitious students who are genuinely interested in the topic. They have chosen themselves, to spend two precious nights after school every week to participate in the conversation about building a better world. That gives me hope.

How would you describe an entrepreneurial mindset?
It’s difficult to say what such a mindset would look like, I think it’s more about understanding the positive and negative implications of entrepreneurship. In order to be an entrepreneur, you have to be curious and daring enough to test your ideas without being afraid to fail, you have to see opportunities where others might see problems and you have to have grit. Without grit you don’t have a chance. To thrive as a social entrepreneur, you have to be passionate about a particular issue and you have to be ready to follow through and sacrifice certain comforts.

Too often, people focus on the success stories, but I think it’s important to talk about how difficult and demanding it is to succeed as a social entrepreneur. Moving to Ghana in order to improve the lives of working women is a much riskier project than launching an app on the market. And is requires a completely different kind of commitment.

Why is interdisciplinarity and diversity important in education?
I think it’s incredibly rewarding to have a classroom made up of people from different schools, different disciplines and different countries, ranging from the most prosperous nations to the most struggling and everything in between. Having such a wide array of backgrounds and experiences does wonder for the dynamics of the group and the height of the ideas. It’s also interesting for me to see how students are shaped by their home disciplines. Often the KTH engineers arrive at the course eager to build innovative products, the business students from Handels go right into crunching numbers and the students from SU, trained in disciplines such as business, law, geography and philosophy, all add their particular flavor to the mix. It’s fun to see how the skills complement and enhance each other when the group is faced with a challenge that is bigger and more complex than any of the projects they normally encounter in school.

What do you most look forward to with the course?
I really enjoy meeting young adults and I love spending time in the kind of conversations that surface. It’s a great privilege to be able to influence the lives of young people and introduce them to the possibility of spending their lives in service of humanity. In a way, preaching the importance of sustainability through academia has become my mission in life.