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USD Professor Shows His Students How to be Both Successful and Caring

Amit Kakkad

San Diego Union-Tribune

Professor Amit Kakkad was recently profiled in the San Diego Union-Tribune's series of notable local people. In the article below, he shares what motivated him to become Director of the Center for Peace and Commerce, as well as his desire to impart the knowledge that one can be both successful and socially conscious.

There are ways to be successful and to do good for others, to be competent while also being conscious, and Amit Kakkad wants to make sure that his students know and understand how to do this.

Kakkad — a clinical professor of operations management at the University of San Diego’s business school — serves as director of the university’s Center for Peace and Commerce, which works on using business principles to help solve social problems.

“Before joining USD, I was a part of the corporate world. … I constantly witnessed the enormous power the private sector has in shaping the established norms and practices across the world, but was dismayed to see very few examples of companies acting responsibly,” he says. “I hypothesized that if we educate tomorrow’s leaders to be not only competent, but conscious, we can end the preponderance of short-sighted actions in the private sector that benefit the few at the cost of catastrophic loss for the society at large.”

Part of educating these future leaders includes the center’s Social Innovation Showcase, a social venture pitch competition for teams and students who present their ideas to a panel of judges, with an opportunity to win seed funding for their ideas. Two finalist teams were recently selected from USD to go on to the global competition next month.

Kakkad, 41, lives in Rancho Bernardo with his wife and their two children. He took some time to talk about his work with the center at the university and why working toward peace and eliminating poverty are important to him.

Q: Why did you want to take on the role as director of the Center for Peace and Commerce?

A: I wanted to make the center an internationally recognized center of excellence in the domain of social innovation and social entrepreneurship, that encouraged, connected, and resourced individuals and organizations focused on the Penta Bottom Line: planet, people, prosperity, peace and partnership. I volunteered to make that happen.

Q: Tell us about the Social Innovation Showcase.

A: The challenge welcomes participation from college and university students around the world. Participating institutes run the first stage, which is to study the problem, and the second stage proposes a solution. They run these stages of the challenge on their own campuses, and each one nominates up to two teams for the global final. At the USD showcase, we celebrate the year-long efforts of USD student-led, semi-finalist teams, get a glimpse of their social innovations, and nominate the best two teams to represent USD at the global final and compete for significant seed funding for their ventures.

Q: What is the thinking behind taking a business approach to solving social problems? How does this approach work in ways a policy or other approach wouldn’t?

A: A business approach to creating and delivering value explicitly focuses on innovation, efficiency, effectiveness, benchmarking and adoption of best practices. It does not rely entirely on social re-distribution of resources through things like tax revenues and charitable funding, it can be financially sustainable and nimble, and is capable of rapid prototyping, evaluation and pivoting. It also gives some agency back to those marginalized sections of the society that the old development model simply considered beneficiaries.

However, this approach has a few limitations as well. Social structures that shape, influence and constrain individual and community behavior are usually deeply entrenched in the community, and a business approach usually lacks the ability and the will to engage for a longer period of time before wanting to see the signs of success. Solving most social issues require concerted and coordinated efforts across multiple entities over a period of time — something a business enterprise is ill-equipped to do on its own.

What I love about Rancho Bernardo ...

My open view from my backyard (my neighborhood is on a small hill) and all of my neighbors.

Q: The showcase was in April and two finalist teams were selected to compete on the global level in June? What did those two teams pitch and why were they selected?

A: At this year’s showcase, the two selected teams were Water Sensei and Refugee Illuminated, which received the nomination to represent USD at the upcoming global final on June 23. Water Sensei is developing an affordable, smart and reliable water testing and quality monitoring device. Refugee Illuminated is working on deploying solar lanterns and on creating behavioral change campaigns to promote fire safety in refugee camps in Thailand. Both teams showcased a thorough understanding of the problem and solutions landscapes, and presented a well-crafted solution that scored highly across the entire rubric used by the judges.

Q: You’ve said that “social entrepreneurs and innovators around the world are already taking a lead in finding sustainable and scalable solutions to the most pressing problems facing the world.” What are some of those most pressing problems and what are the examples of the sustainable solutions other social entrepreneurs have come up with?

A: Social entrepreneurship is not a new concept, per se. The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross are well-respected examples of successful social enterprises that have been around for ages. More recent examples include micro-finance organizations around the world that offer micro credit to those that are unable to access traditional sources of capital; Greyston Bakery, which provides vocational training and jobs to previously incarcerated individuals in Yonkers, N.Y.; and Dreams for Change, which serves homeless individuals and families here in San Diego. What is relatively new is the rapid increase in the number of colleges and universities that provide an opportunity for their students to try social entrepreneurship during their college years, and the general receptiveness and support for such initiatives from grant-makers.

Q: What did you want the students involved to gain from their participation in the showcase?

A: By participating in the challenge, the students get to experience entrepreneurship in action, and learn how to conceptualize, build, launch, and grow a business venture. They grow both professionally and personally through the mentoring, coaching, networking, teamwork and skill-building exercises throughout the year. This learning experience better prepares them to capitalize on opportunities that they may come across in the future.

Participation in the challenge gives the students who are concerned about societal and environmental sustainability an opportunity to go from just having a caring heart to also having a nuanced understanding of a specific social or environmental problem. Ultimately, their participation in the Global Social Innovation Challenge serves the society by equipping them with the awareness, empathy, and understanding of sustainable development challenges, and by enabling them with the necessary knowledge and skills to develop practical yet impactful solutions that can positively shift the behavior of complex societal systems. Even if the participants do not implement their proposed social venture after taking part in the challenge, the learning experience makes them a much more socially and environmentally conscious decision-maker, regardless of the sector they end up working in after their graduation.

Q: What’s been rewarding about your work with the Center for Peace and Commerce, and with the showcase?

A: Helping students realize that it is possible and vital to do well and to do good at the same time!

Q: What has it taught you about yourself?

A: “If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life.”

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new,” attributed to the Dalai Lama.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I have had four near-death experiences so far, which were all related to my love for adventure sports, and each one has made me more spiritual than before.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Spending at least half of the day with my wife and kids doing whatever activity they want to do.

Contact:

Pamela Gray Payton
pgray@sandiego.edu
(619) 260-4681