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How Do You Define Social Good?

MBA students discuss their firsthand experiences from the Power of Social Technology curriculum at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“Let’s talk about purpose,” says MC Hammer, “how do you define “social good'?"


He looks straight at me. The class falls silent. Heads turn my way.

Holy cats, did MC Hammer just serve me a pop quiz?

Stanford GSB invited Hammer—Twitter-savvy pop icon adored by millions—to co-teach Social Media for Social Good, a class in which Stanford MBA and design students are enrolled. I am one of them.

Strikingly, halfway through the course, everyone still holds different definitions of “social good.” To some it means any kind of charity (like Zynga donation campaigns), to others, serving the underserved (as defined by Investopedia). To others still, it's a buzzword to spin in framing commercial interests (greenwashing, anyone?).

My classmates shift nervously, wondering how I’ll reply. To me, "social good” is intuitive—like the punch line of a joke we get, but can’t explain. I think through an example: Embrace. The nonprofit founded by Stanford students, recently featured in TED aims to save low-birth-weight babies in the developing world who die because of a lack of access to incubators. Embrace produces infant-sized sleeping bags with re-usable heating units that maintain the life-saving temperature of 98.6°F for four-hour stretches. The units cost $25 and Embrace aims to raise $1.5 million to launch the company beyond its current mandate in rural India.

How did I hear about all this? Three MBA classmates chose Embrace for their class project, producing an online video that raised $4,000 in its first 10 days. They also persuaded the Rotary Club of Bangalore to adopt Embrace for their annual fundraising project, and inspired Gaurang Shah, CEO of Digital Signage Networks of India, to run the video on his billboards.

Though they are on opposite sides of the planet, this network appears to be linked by an invisible force that seems to bounce across Mumbai and Palo Alto, each action begetting another, and building spontaneously.

But how to phrase this to my class?

“Social good,” I reply, “is about how we help others.”

Hammer thinks a moment, then he nods. He gets it.

Through its new curriculum, Stanford Business School connects students with opportunities to create social good through online conversations. Topics range from the use of design process and empathy techniques in developing social media, to the art of storytelling and the engineering of virality. The community includes Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg, blogger Robert Scoble, MC Hammer, Dave McClure of 500Hats.com, and Kiva.org’s Jessica Jackley.

Illustration by Joelle Leung.

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