The chance to host a Nobel laureate and launch a cutting-edge, revolutionary learning annex with important social connotations might be something a school such as Stanford, Berkeley or UCLA would kill for.

But as the California Institute for Social Business launched this week, it was not in Los Angeles, San Francisco or anywhere else outside the county, but right in Camarillo, where Cal State University, Channel Islands (CSUCI), celebrated the offering of new curriculum that administrators, faculty and students are hoping can make a positive difference in the finance and business worlds of Ventura County and beyond.

“There’s lots of potential here,” says Dr. Ashish Vaidya, CSUCI dean of faculty. “It’s a new field. We want to look at how it can be successful.”

The new institute debuts at a university relatively new itself — just 8 years old — while homing in on a concept germane to 21st century economics. Social businesses, those companies with the spirit and drive of a nonprofit, whose business models devote their revenues to furthering an important social cause, were coined as such just a few years ago by microfinancier Muhammad Yunus.

Yunus, who founded the latest addition to CSUCI, visited the campus on Friday for a day of speaking engagements, concluding with a capacity crowd gathered to hear the peace prize-winner speak in Thousand Oaks.

“Social justice is a basic human right,” stated Yunus, seated by a fireplace during a media Q&A Friday afternoon at the Westlake Village Inn.

The Bangladeshi founder of Grameen Bank was awarded the Nobel four years ago for his efforts to bring Third World people the financial and business opportunities reserved typically for those who are wealthier. Yunus is credited with creating microcredit for the poor, low-income entrepreneur who cannot afford a bank loan or other funding.

“Through no fault of their own, they’re rejected from business,” said Yunus on Friday. The culprits? “Money-making robbers,” was his answer.

“His notion of social business is that it should be cost recovery, no loss, but a no-dividend type of company,” elaborated Vaidya. “If it makes profit, that’s fine, as long as it goes back to improving a business.”

That’s what the goal of the institute will entail, added Vaidya, to take a look at social problems and issues, and how they can be solved through commerce and business dealings.

“We want to be able to offer undergraduate and graduate classes to help students be well versed with the idea of social business and how it can transform social objectives,” he said.

Yunus last year had devised seven such objectives defining social business, whose underlying component is using business savvy to bolster areas and people in poor economic conditions, and to “do it with joy.” Friday, Yunus weighed in on the global recession.

“Altogether, this is a great, great crisis,” he said, “but at the same time, a great opportunity to redesign the structure we have.”

He suggested that business men and women should take a personal initiative. “Instead of waiting for (government), we should do what we can,” he said. “This is a good time to take that leadership.”

The CSUCI-Yunus link came via Julia Wilson, the university’s vice president for advancement, who formerly worked for Grameen three years ago as director of the bank’s West Coast office. Through Grameen, Wilson got to see cities across the U.S. benefit from the tenets of the social business movement.

“I had the chance to meet Dr. Yunus and see him in a number of different cities and travel with him,” she said.
Yet it was when Wilson authored a paper proposing something never before attempted — the social business model at work in an academic setting — that the seed was planted. When Wilson later left the bank, taking the position at CSUCI, she received with it Yunus’ blessing on the idea that the school seemed like a natural place to put the idea to the test.

“It started from a conversation, and lo and behold, he managed to squeeze in a visit to the campus,” Wilson said.

“We stepped out and said, ‘We can do this here.’ We’re a new university and it makes us flexible to what programs we can do.”

According to Wilson and Vaidya, the institute’s interdisciplinary mission includes an MBA program in social business being offered in the spring, along with a host of other general courses from other majors. Wilson said that CSUCI is working to get more faculty and a better complement of courses on the line by the 2011 school year, and that may rely heavily on funding, none of which comes from public, state dollars.

Wilson said the university will need $2 million over the next three school years to put all of the institute’s classes and degree offerings in place. More ambitious will be outreach to raise more than $20 million in endowment funding, she said, to seed local social businesses.

Part of that money, said Vaidya, is to fulfill the school’s wish to pilot a social business incubator for startup entrepreneurs in Ventura County.

“So if somebody actually wants to develop and launch a successful social business, what can we do to help?” he asked.

And what will Dr. Yunus’ involvement be at the institute? He intends to visit the Camarillo campus annually.

“The more it draws attention, the more I’ll be involved with it,” Yunus said. “I think (the institute) will have a big impact because other universities will follow. This is not only a think tank, it’s an action tank.”   

paul@vcreporter.com