Exploring the buzz about social entrepreneurship

Mason students from Professor Lisa Gring-Pemble's Social Impact and Entrepreneurship class, crowd around a beehive in Colombia. Photo provided.

Francis Fuller, a senior accounting major at George Mason University, had never been around so many bees.

But there she was, in a beekeeper’s suit, in the Santander region of Colombia, hearing the insects buzzing around her head.

“To be around that many bees and not running from them was an experience,” Fuller said.

Fuller was one of 15 students in Professor Lisa Gring-Pemble’s Social Impact and Entrepreneurship class (MGMT 454) who traveled to the South American country for 10 days during spring break to get a granular look at local businesses that not only make a profit, but also help people and the environment.

The Santander region of Colombia was a natural as George Mason’s Honey Bee Initiative, co-founded by Gring-Pemble and Germán Perilla and administered jointly by the School of Business and College of Science, has provided about 180 beehives there through its social entrepreneurship outreach.

In addition to touring some of those hives and speaking with the beekeepers—mostly women looking to create a sustainable livelihood that meshes with family and household obligations, Gring-Pemble said—students visited businesses that produce honey, chocolate, brown sugar and coffee, and explored their business models.

They also met with bankers and mayors, and administrators from the Universidad Industrial de Santander, all of whom are helping to finance and advance these initiatives. The bank that supports the bee hive projects in Colombia even made a video with the visit by Mason students a centerpiece.

The cost of the trip was mitigated by a Global Discovery grant through Mason’s Global Education Office, and funds from the School of Business and its Women in Business Initiative, Gring-Pemble said.

“We’re reading about these abstract concepts about social entrepreneurship, using business to create a better world, and it all sounds really wonderful,” Gring-Pemble said. “But when [students] meet a business owner who says I’m willing to pay above what the market sets as a wage because it’s the right thing to do, and I’m making a profit and doing it in a way that’s sustainable, then they take notice.”

“They were able to see the whole picture of what social entrepreneurship is,” said Perilla, who teaches beekeeping classes at Mason. “It’s one thing to create case studies. It’s another thing if you can go see the complexity of it.”

Seeing how beehives have been incorporated into the lives of locals was especially impactful for Fuller, who came to the United States from Cartagena, Colombia, in 2010.

“The trip allowed me to understand the importance of learning about problems and the communities before attempting to generate a solution, which is necessary to create sustainable change,” Fuller said. “That was a key concept throughout the class before going on the trip, and was also very much present through our time in Colombia.”

Beyond that, she said, “I have a much deeper appreciation for bees.”