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Professor unveils new resource for social entrepreneurs


ASU professor Vanna Gonzales outdoors
September 21, 2011

Across the United States, municipalities large and small once pinned their hopes for new jobs on luring a big company’s manufacturing operation to their community. But in today’s global economy and highly automated production environment, entrepreneurship offers a more promising, more sustainable path to job growth – and that includes innovative enterprises in the social economy, such as food and farming cooperatives, non-profit service agencies, and re-use and fair trade retail stores.

On Sept. 22, a new Web resource designed especially for blooming social entrepreneurs and changemakers in the American Southwest celebrates its formal launch. SocialeconomyAZ.org is spearheaded by Vanna Gonzales, assistant professor of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“The changing economic atmosphere has led to a cultural shift in how we think about social and economic development,” Gonzales says. “These changes are paving the way for a new socially responsible and sustainable business model. Social Economy AZ aims to nurture that new model by connecting local consumers, entrepreneurs, and business owners to a wealth of information and to each other, and to advance research and teaching in areas that connect social entrepreneurship to social justice, community development and economic sustainability.”

On the site, businesses at various stages of development can find links to legal and financial assistance as well as information to help cultivate a startup. Professors looking to learn about social enterprise theory or developing service-learning courses will find resources as well. Students and community members interested in supporting the Arizona economy, or even just finding an organization to get involved with on the weekends, will discover a growing directory and map of Arizona’s social economy. The site also offers plenty of opportunities for networking and sharing news and ideas.

In spring 2011, Gonzales, who has long been interested in the capacity of governance and non-profits to promote social and economic justice, team-taught an innovative social enterprise course with professor Enrico Giovannetti of the Department of Political Economy in Italy's University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The course brought ASU students and Italian students together on the ASU campus for the first six weeks of the semester. They participated in an overview of the literature on social enterprises and cooperatives and compared the U.S. and Italian experiences with social entrepreneurship.

During the last six weeks of the course, American student teams developed social innovation projects for four community organizations in the Phoenix area, while their Italian counterparts continue to work with cooperative enterprises in Italy. The video component of the SocialeconomyAZ.org shares guest lectures presesented in the course as well as outcomes from ASU student teams working with the International Refugee Center, Arcosanti and Conspire.

The transdisciplinary, transnational course was funded as part of the 2010-2011 ASU Pathways to Entrepreneurship Grant Program; Gonzales and colleague Nancy Jurik, professor of justice and social inquiry, served as co-principal investigators on the project.

“Northern Italy has been recognized for some time as a global leader in advancing the cooperative movement,” Gonzales notes. “Our affiliation and collaboration with scholars and the social enterprise movement in Modena signals our seriousness in creating a leading resource in Arizona for people who have a new economic vision, more in tune with today’s global economic parameters and community needs.”

Observes Gonzales: “As writer and global economy guru Thomas Friedman said recently in an NPR interview about his new book, ‘That Used to Be Us,’ the days of having a 50,000-worker factory move to your city are over. What we need are 50,000 people – 1,000 of whom are starting jobs for 10 people, 50 creating jobs for 100, 100 hiring 30. Everybody needs to be starting something.”