Faculty Interview: Maija Renko, Driehaus College of Business

Maija Renko is a professor and the Coleman Chair of Entrepreneurship at the Driehaus College of Business, where she teaches entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship courses. She is passionate about understanding how entrepreneurs build successful businesses that not only generate financial rewards for those involved, but contribute to the advancement of society and positive change, particularly for marginalized members of the community.

Recently, Alumni Relations sat down with Dr. Renko to learn more about her research, teaching and work. Read that interview below:

Your work focuses on the concept of “social entrepreneurship,” an emerging, hybrid area of business that combines for-profit and nonprofit principles. Explain this concept for us.

The way I usually define social entrepreneurship is based on the motivation of the entrepreneur or the investors that have come together. And the key question to ask is: What is the reason this initiative, business or organization is being launched? Is it mainly to create social change and promote social good? Or, is the motivation more on the side of creating financial outcomes for the entrepreneurs themselves?

The way I teach social entrepreneurship is as a point on a spectrum rather than as a binary, either/or concept. In this model, any business can exist on a continuum between the traditional nonprofit and the big for-profit corporation. And then there are several shades of gray in between the two. For instance, there are plenty of nonprofits that have business-like initiatives that they create earned income from, like Girl Scout cookies. On the other end, we’ve got corporations that are practicing what they call “corporate social responsibility.” They want to act as good corporate citizens but still consider their financial metrics as the number one thing for them. And then the purest form of social enterprise would be somewhere in the middle, an organization with a motivation to advance social change but that is practiced and founded in a way that aligns with traditional business principles. Ideally, the entrepreneur would like to run a business that is not at all dependent on government or philanthropic funding, but is instead self-sustainable.

Renko (left) leads a panel discussion at “Global Entrepreneurship – Stories from Startups,’’ a Coleman Entrepreneurship Center event organized in partnership with World Chicago.

A major social issue in our country today is income inequality and the wealth gap. It has been argued that the top handful of earners today own more of the country’s wealth than nearly ever before, and that is inhibiting the average person’s ability to live a comfortable, middle class life. Many people place the blame for this issue on what big business has been allowed to get away with – keeping wages low, buying back stocks to consolidate corporate control, etc. Do you foresee a solution for this problem arising from within business itself or elsewhere?

Corporations themselves are waking up to the new reality that unless things start to change and unless there is a remedy for that gap between the haves and have-nots, then the corporations themselves are going to suffer, too. Last summer, there was a statement from The Business Roundtable – a group of chief executives from mostly publicly-owned, large organizations – that said, look, we should probably consider factors beyond shareholder wealth as the driving force of our business. We should think of stakeholders in a more comprehensive way and consider what kind of an impact we are having on not just our shareholders or our employees, but beyond the corporate walls as well.

I would say it’s about time that major companies are waking up to this, but it is also important on the side of startups and new businesses. When I look at the young people we teach who are going into business themselves, oftentimes they are driven to action by something that is either a social enterprise, or at least by a mission of solving a specific problem. I think that when entrepreneurs encounter these social issues—because they are problem solvers by their very nature—they naturally start to work on fixing them. There are plenty of examples from other countries of how to have a more equitable society and, although I’m not sure what the right method is to do that in the American context, I think everybody—including those big corporations—is realizing that the current trend is not sustainable. Something has to be done.

When you think about your current students—the emerging generation of entrepreneurs—do you find that they gravitate toward this philosophy?

The younger generations are more open to the idea that there is a space in between the traditional for-profit and the traditional nonprofit; that there is an option besides a nonprofit for “doing good.” There is an older school of thought surrounding business ethics that was promoted by their parents and by older generations that they reject; this idea that whatever is done in the context of your work is “strictly business and not personal.”

This whole statement is wrong on so many levels, but it’s the traditional way of thinking: that somehow, in the context of business, we can distance ourselves from right and wrong, we can check our morals and values at the door and pretty much do whatever we want, because it’s “just business.” It’s when we go back home, within our churches or our communities—that’s where we give back, by donating to charities. I have observed this way of thinking about business changing, which is encouraging. Younger generations are seeing business as a means to achieve a variety of goals—not just for creating profit, but also for solving problems.

You’re originally from Northern Europe, a place in which many have a perception of business as operating with greater equity and creating a wider distribution of financial rewards. Certainly, our perception is not a wholly accurate representation of the region, but being from a place where businesses operate under a slightly different set of cultural mores, how that has affected you as a business educator here in America?

One thing that really speaks to me, and one of the big reasons I’m doing what I’m doing in the first place, is that in all of those Scandinavian countries—and in Finland especially—there is this inherent and unquestioned value of education. There is a belief that, as a society, you have to offer people an opportunity to get educated, and that’s the way to increase equality and make work and life meaningful for people. I truly believe that if people don’t have a chance to get educated, there’s something profoundly wrong with the system.

The most common representation of entrepreneurship in the US is this idea that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you can start your business and you can make it big, and there are hundreds of beautiful stories of people doing that. But what’s missing in that story is that you need to have human capital. You need to have the cultural capital to be able to make that work in today’s society, especially, and that’s where education comes in to play.

I did not think of that when I first moved to the US—that the value of education was something that was ingrained in me, but after 15 years here, I see it a little bit more clearly. I’ve naturally gravitated towards the idea of social entrepreneurship as something that I like teaching partially because of the background that I have. I do see business as a way to solve societal problems rather than create them.

A large part of your work has been focused on removing barriers to entrepreneurship for disabled and marginalized people. In a world that is built for the able-bodied and the privileged, what are the specific barriers that these folks are facings?

Well, it’s a whole lot of them, but some of the obvious ones have to do with financial capital. People with disabilities, especially if they are receiving benefits for their disabilities, are limited as to how they can accumulate assets without violating the bureaucracy associated with their benefits. It’s really holding them back. Oftentimes if they make “too much money,” they may lose their benefits, meaning they don’t have access to healthcare anymore. It’s a jungle that is super hard to navigate. And then, of course, the way that many entrepreneurs access funding is through their networks—first through their friends and family and then their extended networks.

We know that people with disabilities tend to have smaller networks than the average in the population, so just by that measure, their access to sources of funding is limited. One of the things that’s helping a lot of them is access to technology, as people today can start a lot of different types of businesses, even from home, thanks to modern technological capabilities. But that may also be holding them back in terms of funding, because businesses like that may be considered less fundable by outsiders. Finally, there’s still a real challenge with attitudes generally. A lot of people may choose not to even disclose their disability when they go into business, because if they do, it’s common that somebody who could be a customer or a funder hears about the business and they hear of the entrepreneur and may think of it first and foremost as a charity. They don’t even think of the disabled person’s project as a competitive business necessarily.

Renko joined DePaul in 2019 from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was the recipient of multiple research and teaching awards, including Favorite MBA Professor (voted by students).

Where do you see progress for differently-abled and less-privileged entrepreneurs?

I think, overall, we are becoming more aware of the issue. It is certainly talked about more than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Educators, businesspeople and policymakers are realizing that it is really important for people to have a chance to start businesses regardless of their demographics and their backgrounds. Women entrepreneurs have received a lot of attention in recent years. We hear more about immigrant entrepreneurs and their importance in a similar way. Once we start to talk more about the challenges that people face, those challenges becomes better understood and known, and we can begin to mobilize to solve the problems associated with a lack of access. This awareness stage is the first stage of change that needs to take place. I’m encouraged by that.

You’re fairly new to the DePaul community, having joined the Driehaus College of Business and Coleman Entrepreneurship Center this past September. What opportunities or philosophies attracted you to this institution?

I had the chance to observe the university for years from just down the road, teaching at UIC for 12 years, and I’ve known great, accomplished people at DePaul for quite some time, so it’s looked to me like a nice place to work with a good culture. In the end, though, what it came down to is that the College of Business is very focused and very open about its investment and interest in pursuing entrepreneurship. That’s one of the areas that they want to be known for and want to develop. As an entrepreneurship professor, that was the number one thing that attracted me here.

Entrepreneurship at business schools is a newer area of scholarship compared to other areas like accounting or finance, or even management and marketing, so some business schools go through cycles of fluctuating investment in entrepreneurship. What I see at DePaul is that we’ve been one of the first universities in the country to make entrepreneurship a focus area that we’ve sustained and remained invested in. I am thrilled to be a part of that.

In terms of mission and philosophy, St. Vincent de Paul’s famous mantra that, “It’s not enough to do good. It must be done well,” feels like an apt descriptor of social entrepreneurship in a lot of ways. Do you think it fits?

I think it does. I believe that a lot of social entrepreneurs would underwrite that statement as a guidepost for what they are doing. If you think about a well-known exemplar of social entrepreneurship, Tom’s shoes, they certainly seek to do good through their buy-one, give-one strategy. But beyond that, they have succeeded in traditional business practices and conduct—smart marketing and branding, creating a desirable product, etc.—so that they also represent the second part of the statement: “It must be done well.” Though these entrepreneurs are motivated by a desire to create social change, they are not operating charities, and they must succeed as true businesspeople to reach their social goals.

At DePaul, too, I found it very encouraging that this mission and the vision and values are much more present in the everyday work and culture than I maybe would have thought. It seems like initiatives are actually aligned with DePaul’s values, and that’s refreshing to me.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To hear more from DePaul faculty, check out our interview with Dr. Horace Hall from the College of Education, and stay tuned to bludemonline.com for more faculty interviews, at-home activities and information about virtual alumni programming in the coming days!

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