An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

I wish I knew how much the world needed the best and the brightest to take on the hardest challenges. If society keeps measuring success solely by personal wealth, we will never attract the people we need to save the world. And unfortunately, the world needs saving.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Adlai Wertman.

Adlai Wertman is the David C. Bohnett Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and the Academic Director of the school’s Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship. He is also the founding Director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC as well as and Director of the Warren Bennis Scholars programs. Before joining USC, Adlai spent seven years as CEO of Chrysalis — a Los Angeles social enterprise devoted to helping the homeless through employment. Prior to Chrysalis, Adlai spent 18 years as an investment banker. He earned his BA in economics from SUNY Stony Brook and his MBA in finance from The Wharton School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During my time at Chrysalis, I was blessed to be mentored by Dr. Warren Bennis — one of the premier leadership scholars in the world. (If you haven’t read his seminal book, On Becoming a Leader, buy it today!) Over the course of two and a half years, he asked me three questions. The first was: “What is the problem you want to work on?” I spent a full year thinking about it and stated that I was very concerned that not enough people who wanted to address social issues were studying business. He then asked me, “Why does that problem exist?” I spent another year doing research and told him, “Business schools are simply not equipped to train and support students who want to use their degrees for social impact.” And then he asked — I should have seen this coming — “So, Adlai, what are you going to do about it?” I wrote a ten-page proposal to start a social entrepreneurship center at a business school to support students and faculty who want to change the world. And here I am at the USC Marshall School of Business with a large social entrepreneurship center and a specialized master’s degree in social entrepreneurship.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Having spent nearly two decades as an investment banker and another decade running a homeless agency, I stepped foot on the campus of a major research university as a professor looking to start a first-of-its-kind social and student-focused center within USC’s Marshall School of Business. I quickly realized that my only experience at a university was as a student and that perspective was only one small viewpoint and not fully reflective of all that a university does. After raising the funds to open the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, it still took me more than three years to figure out all that goes on at USC’s campus.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

While I have many, the one I have focused on most in the last 40 years is making decisions that move towards positive, not away from negative. I don’t let bad experiences be my guide. I try my best to make decisions based on what gets me be closer to my goals and mission, and not on running away from bad experiences or people that bring you down.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

An idea that could change the world would be bringing business skills and sustainable business models to the table that can provide a new approach to solving social challenges. The knee-jerk reaction to every issue is — let’s start a new non-profit and start raising donations. Yet, organizations constantly competing for the same pot of annual charitable gifts is just not sustainable. However, starting a business — which may be for-profit, or embedded in a non-profit — where you offer a valuable product or service to consumers is financially sustainable. We need to change the traditional non-profit mindset of reliance on donors. And we need to slightly shift the traditional for-profit entrepreneurship model from simply looking for market opportunities to starting with a social problem and finding a product or service that will address it. So, whether it is a non-profit starting a street cleaning business to provide transitional work opportunities for those who are long-term unemployed or designing electric cars to address the climate crisis — these types of business models can be very impactful. This goes way beyond running a traditional business that donates a nickel or pair of shoes when customers buy their products. This is an entirely new way of thinking about a business and a mission.

How do you think this will change the world?

To create and run these “social enterprises,” we need to first train and support a new breed of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Since social enterprises are still businesses that develop and sell products and services, we have to teach people the exact same skills as any other business school program. That is why we created our Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship degree. We need a classroom space where we can teach students traditional accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship — but allow them to learn how to apply these skills in different areas, such as hunger, poverty, failing education systems and climate change. We also need to create a cohort of like-minded individuals to learn from and inspire each other.

Our Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship brings together people from around the globe who will study business together and then go back home and address the problems that are impacting their communities. These are the folks who will truly change the world.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

We want leaders with integrity who are not looking to simply “greenwash” a traditional business, or use donations as a marketing tool, but who are truly focused on solving problems in a sustainable way. I am confident that our students, who have devoted their time and money to getting a graduate degree from a prestigious university, are the true world-changers.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I was the CEO of an LA-based organization dedicated to creating a pathway to self-sufficiency for homeless and low-income individuals by providing the resources and support needed to find and retain employment. One day, I was at yet another large meeting with local leaders who were talking about how to end homelessness in LA. I looked around the table and wondered why I was the only one there who had studied business. I have always believed that heterogeneous groups make better decisions than homogeneous ones. While we had a socio-economically diverse group at the table, the diversity of analytical frameworks was basically reduced to two academic disciplines — social work and policy. I knew we needed way more than those two disciplines to solve these wicked problems — and the one discipline I knew was business. So, I decided to change careers to become a professor at USC to train and support students who wanted to use their business education to solve global social, environmental and health-access challenges.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

People need to know that learning business within the framework of social impact is a powerful option. We have found that our students always say the same thing when they apply to our master’s degree: “When I saw this program, I realized that this is just what I was waiting for.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

As far as what I wish I knew before I started the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab and the MSSE program programs at USC:

  1. I wish I knew how complex a large university is. I remember thinking, “Hey, I worked for major investment banks — I understand large organizations.” But academia is a world unto itself.
  2. I wish I knew what everyone else’s jobs were. I remember asking my dean to explain his job. He told me that it was like being a football coach, except your own team (faculty) can tackle you!
  3. I wish I knew the USC Fight song before I showed up on campus. I studied in schools with no real “school spirit.” At USC — you will quickly learn how to say, “fight on!”
  4. I wish I knew that the Trojan Family is a real thing. I was in a student orientation at our Marshall School of Business where the students were told, “If you reach out to ten USC Trojan graduates through LinkedIn, nine will answer right away — and the tenth, send us their name.”
  5. I wish I knew how much the world needed the best and the brightest to take on the hardest challenges. If society keeps measuring success solely by personal wealth, we will never attract the people we need to save the world. And unfortunately, the world needs saving.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

  1. There is absolutely no replacement for hard work — none!
  2. Have personal goals — not just for your own personal career growth — but for what impact you want to make.
  3. Let those goals be your north star.
  4. When you are facing a big decision, go back to your goals and ask yourself, “Is this bringing me closer to meeting my goals? Does it align with my north star?” If it doesn’t, move on.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

VC’s need to realize that when an entrepreneur wants to make a social impact, they are not your traditional businessperson. They need to realize that these are dedicated individuals deeply vested in the success of their business because of both their social and their financial missions. Profit is a great motivator. But profit plus social impact is an even greater one.

I do need to add that many of these new businesses are being built by people who have traditionally been extremely under-represented in VC investments. This needs to change. And now!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn —

Twitter — @AdlaiWertman

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Social Entrepreneurship Degrees: Adlai Wertman’s Big Idea That Might Change The World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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