As a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, Siiri Morley watched development workers train women to make crafts without much thought to whether their products would actually sell. Unsold crafts piled up until these businesses and programs inevitably failed, leaving the women without an income, marketable skills, or hope of rising from poverty.
This experience taught Morley that even the best-intentioned social programs would not work unless they could operate in the black by adhering to established business practices such as identifying markets for goods and services. Today, with an MBA in hand, she is one of three founders of a successful Boston firm that sells candles made in developing nations and provides a steady income to the women who make them.
“That’s actually why I went to business school,” Morley said. “I want to be able to look at business projections and know that this will be viable, that the women will be able to earn enough money from it.”
Morley, 35, is one of a number of entrepreneurs who have earned an MBA from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and launched startups that aim to use the power of innovation and markets to effect social and economic change.
This year, about one-third of the 44 students beginning Heller’s MBA program are concentrating in social entrepreneurship.
Interest in social enterprises, business that aim to solve social problems, is growing among budding entrepreneurs. Many of the nation’s top business schools, including Harvard’s, offer programs and courses on social enterprises. The Hult Prize, an annual competition that awards $1 million to business students with the best plans for launching a social enterprise, attracted more than 11,000 applicants this year, compared with 1,000 four years ago.
The Heller MBA differs, however, because it is offered through a school of social policy, rather than a business school, said Brenda Anderson, director of the Heller MBA program.
The program integrates social, environmental, and ethical issues into core management courses found in traditional business school curriculums. It also includes courses such as poverty alleviation, race and gender inequality, and health care policy.
“As candidates come to us,” Anderson said. “We see more and more individuals who are passionate about making society a better place by becoming social entrepreneurs.”
Morley grew up in Sheffield and received a degree in international relations focusing on anthropology and Chinese from Kenyon College in Ohio in 2000. After serving in the Peace Corps, she decided to pursue an MBA and chose Heller.
The year after graduating from Heller in 2009, Morley and two partners founded Prosperity Candle to sell candles produced by women in developing countries such as Haiti and Iraq. Candles were chosen because they have a worldwide market and can easily be produced anywhere, on a small or large scale, with easily accessible materials and minimal training.
Last year, Morley spun off a nonprofit, Prosperity Catalyst, to train women in candlemaking and teach them to run their own businesses.
Prosperity Candle started with 50 Iraqi women, and with the help of a recent $2 million grant from the State Department, plans to expand to 600. The company has also brought production to the states, employing refugees from Myanmar and Bhutan for $13 an hour. Production began in Haiti in 2012, with employment expected to increase over the next two years to 50 from 12.
“We’re really using business as a vehicle to move women out of poverty and help them invest more in their children, families, and communities,” Morley said.
Brenna Schneider, 30, worked for Morley at Prosperity Candle while studying for her Heller MBA at Brandeis. After graduating last year, she founded 99 degrees custom, a clothing manufacturer in Lawrence, to provide higher-paying manufacturing jobs in a poor community with a large population of immigrants.
The company, founded in April, employs five workers who earn $11 an hour, compared with the state minimum wage of $8. It also offers health insurance, paid vacation, personal days, and flexible schedules so workers can take classes and attend training programs. The company’s goal is for the workers to leave for better-paying jobs and careers.
Through her work with Prosperity Candle, Schneider met another Brandeis graduate, Elizabeth Buckley, who became a supplier to 99 degrees custom. Buckley cofounded Lallitara, a retailer selling clothes and accessories made of used saris purchased in India.
Buckley’s company buys saris from men and women at well above the market price of about 20 cents each. Lallitara pays more than $1, then sells them to US manufacturers who transform the garments into wallets and bow ties. The wallets retail for $44 online and bow ties for $58.
Lallitara donates 10 percent of its profits to nonprofit development groups working in India with their suppliers.
Women in India, as in America, strive to keep up with the latest fashions, which means regularly changing sari patterns and an estimated 500 million saris discarded each year. If Lallitara could purchase two saris every day for a year from the same woman, it would push her family above the poverty line, Buckley said.
“We find fulfillment as a company because we provide our customer with a product, but we can also stimulate the lives and economy of those in India,” she said. “If we didn’t have those components, we wouldn’t be driven to do what we’re doing.”