In 2009, The Lewis Family Foundation gave a generous gift to Babson College with the express desire to galvanize faculty, students, staff, and alumni around the greater notions of social entrepreneurship and social impact, influencing Babson’s core strategy to educate leaders who will create economic and social value simultaneously.
President-Elect Stephen Spinelli MBA’92, who will become Babson’s 14th president on July 1, met Alan Lewis in 2007. He recalls: “Alan Lewis is a very intentional leader. It was clear to me his vision was about sustaining entrepreneurship with a deep understanding of how to improve the human condition.”
This gift, not endowment, seeded a startup mindset within The Lewis Institute that ensured the investment would be relevant and responsive to all Babson stakeholders around the world. The Lewis Institute planned to educate, amplify, accelerate, and communicate social value creation in all its forms. We helped students prepare to enter established businesses as social innovators, create new ventures with social responsibility and social benefit as a core value proposition, and establish new nonprofits to fill gaps in addressing societal and environmental challenges.
“There are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something.” — Thomas Edison
There were no established rules or maps, just a strong desire to see something manifested in a Babson way that would add value to an already extraordinary institution with extraordinary faculty and resources. The gift would enhance Babson’s entrepreneurial culture, emphasizing social as well as economic value creation as a defining core aspect of its strategy. The Institute would enroll both usual and unusual suspects and cultivate those relationships for mutually beneficial success. And most importantly, it would employ Babson’s very own methodology of Entrepreneurial Thought & Action® (ET&A™) to create its way forward.
From its beginning, The Lewis Institute had a predisposition for change in service to greater relevancy and made a strategic decision to expand its focus under the umbrella of social innovation. This change allowed for a broader constituency to be engaged and encompassed, but was not limited to social entrepreneurship. We wanted as many people as possible to engage with our activities at their own pace and interest level. While there was not a defined road map, there were a few guideposts that helped us begin focusing our efforts. They were simple: Be relevant and responsive to the Babson culture, aim to be a recognized leader in the domain of social innovation through both curricular and co-curricular activities, engage anyone and everyone who could push us and partner with us so that we could learn and live into our expanded mission in an impactful way, and practice Babson’s ET&A methodology every day so as to always reflect and react to the changing needs of our Babson community and the broader society.
“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The gift enabled us to jump-start and create a self-sustaining entity, which acts like a startup inside an academic institution. We had the freedom we needed to go out and build — in real time — an institute that would be specifically relevant to Babson. We built it knowing that where we started would not be where we would eventually end up. How we started and how we acted informed and helped us define how we were going to grow. In other words, we had what The Lewis Institute calls “flexagility.” Our funder and college leadership supported our need for flexibility and agility to practice entrepreneuring every day so that our impact could be experienced, measured, and reimagined continually.
At the beginning, we benchmarked against the great centers on social entrepreneurship and social innovation. We mapped the ecosystem and we learned a great deal about what was important to know, who was important to know, and what was necessary to provide to begin The Lewis Institute’s journey.
Over the past 10 years, The Lewis Institute has used its gift to make social innovation and social impact accessible. Our work began to expand into researching the importance of social value creation, entrepreneurship, and social design as an imperative to business success.
When we observed social innovators, there were a few traits and behaviors that were consistent among them. They almost always:
- Found a way to say yes.
- Promoted unusual partnerships.
- Steered nonlinear journeys.
- Activated changemakers.
- Cultivated relationships.
- Ignited breakthrough interactions.
- Fostered social value in business.
- Believed that everyone’s needs are better met in community.
“Never underestimate the power of a good conversation.”
The Lewis Institute has evolved over time to reflect the interests, needs, and desires of its community. Our motto is “Do Something That Matters,” and we engage by creating habitats for purposeful dialogue in pursuit of information, relationships, and connections around social impact. These habitats are called Uncommon Tables. At least once a week, we convene around some of the most important conversations that matter most to our students and community. We talk broadly and deeply, discussing the UN Global Goals, global healthcare entrepreneurship, disrupting the food system, youth education, corporate responsibility, social entrepreneurship, the purpose of capital, nonprofit management, poverty alleviation, impact investing, new business models for impact, changemaking, positive disruption, and more.
For The Lewis Institute, value is created because we have a relationship with each of our funders that is based on open communication, freedom, flexagility, risk-taking, and courage to co-create. Our partners help us live into our mission of educating leaders who will create economic and social value simultaneously. We have tried to make social innovation something everyone can embrace, not just a few.
“Enrollment is not about getting somebody to do something that you want them to do. It’s about offering them the chance to do something they might want to do.” — Leonard A. Schlesinger
The Lewis Institute is a self-sustaining, revenue-generating area of the College. It’s an ecosystem for social innovation. It’s a connector to resources. It’s a convener of thought leadership. It’s an activator of new thinking and new ideas. It is not wed to one specific type of research. In a very ET&A way, it allows students, faculty, staff, alumni, and broader community partners to find their own way to become changemakers and social innovators.
The initial gift created the runway to attract more gifts and revenue-generating activities. We have attracted other significant funding to endow certain programs and initiatives inside The Lewis Institute in perpetuity. We’ve continued to employ ET&A to create a series of action tanks that are becoming self-sustaining businesses and entities underneath us — all in support and service of the broader mission of the College to educate leaders to create economic and social value simultaneously.
“Social impact is a natural foundation to empower value creation for individuals, organizations, and communities,” says Spinelli. “One of the reasons I have returned to Babson is because of The Lewis Institute.”