Who participates in social entrepreneurship programs -- and why?

Though universities across the country have placed more of a focus on engineering entrepreneurship programs, the fields these programs emphasize – engineering, entrepreneurship and technology – often struggle to attract and retain female students.

Khanjan Mehta, assistant professor of engineering design and founding director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program at Penn State; Rachel Dzombak, a doctoral student studying civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley; and Sally Mouakkad, outreach manager of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) team in Washington, D.C., studied this phenomenon by researching the motivations behind women’s engagement with the HESE program. Their findings are detailed in “Motivations of Women Participating in a Technology-Based Social Entrepreneurship Program,” an article published in the Winter 2016 special issue of Advances in Engineering Education focused on engineering entrepreneurship education.

Mehta and then Penn State undergraduate student Dzombak and graduate student Mouakkad studied the reasons men and women involved with HESE cited as their top motivations for participating in the program with a goal of better understanding why women are drawn to the program. The group believes increased comprehension of the motivation of women engaged with the program can influence both recruitment and retention strategies, as well as lead to the creation of transformative learning environments and entrepreneurial ecosystems for both men and women of varying disciplines.

After analyzing five years’ worth of data, their findings show that contrary to many of the common perceptions that women simply want to help others, becoming a global professional, making a difference, and applying theory learned in school to address a problem were the top reasons for women across diverse academic majors participating in the program. Moreover, students clearly articulated their aspirations for leading social change by building long-term self-sustaining systems rather than “helping out” or volunteering in an ad-hoc manner.

“Women are good at tackling multi-faceted challenges and taking input from many different places at once to determine a solution. Women further want to figure out how to make systemic change and how they can work on problems that are dynamic and impact people’s lives,” Dzombak said. “They want to use their diverse skill set -- not just one skill.”

In comparison, men cited making a difference, participating in an exciting real-world project and applying theory to address a problem as their top reasons for participating in HESE.

Dzombak said it was important to unpack these reasons in order to create more programs like HESE at other institutions around the country. As this topic was a passion of hers, due to her own interests and involvement with HESE, she was enthusiastic to join the research Mehta and Mouakkad had already begun on the subject.

“HESE was extremely formative to my growth as an engineer. It provided me with a broader picture of what engineering could entail and what activities engineering could encompass that aligned with my values,” she said. “This is something I am passionate about and wanted to further research.”

Dzombak said HESE gives students the agency to be leaders, make decisions, and be accountable for their own decisions.

“It is powerful for students to realize that their opinions matter and their perspective, no matter where they are coming from, is valuable. And when, after years of work, students see their social ventures gain traction and start to scale, or when their research articles finally get published, it boosts their self-efficacy and completely transforms their mindset,” she said.

The paper’s findings express these ideals, explaining that though men and women may differ in their reasons for being involved with the program, the ultimate goal remains the same -- solving complex problems in in a global context. The problems tackled by students in the HESE program -- such as access to health care and food security -- require the input of multi-disciplinary stakeholders -- something HESE accomplishes by creating a learning environment that includes students from many different majors and education levels. Students from every college within the University are encouraged to participate in the program, as no problem can be solved by a single discipline.

“Any real-world, complex problem is going to require input from multiple different stakeholders, multiple different groups and people coming from different perspectives,” Dzombak said. “You’re not going to be an engineer working by yourself; you are going to need to work with public authorities, policy leaders and natural scientists in order to build a system. That’s the type of learning environment HESE creates at Penn State.”

It’s this teaching and learning environment that Dzombak sees as the future of engineering education. In order to build programs like HESE at other institutions, it is vital to understand the wants and needs of male and female students across multiple disciplines.

“Students are very clear in their motivations of participating in HESE -- to actually build sustainable and scalable systems that live on, take a life of their own, and solve problems for lots of people. Just like millennials everywhere, they are challenging educators to build educational and entrepreneurial ecosystems that prepare them for impact-focused careers,” Mehta said. “If we build it, they will come.”

HESE is an academic program housed within the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) at Penn State.

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Last Updated March 15, 2016