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Adventures with Enactus

“Push yourself,” I told George, a student in my 1991 macroeconomics class. “Business isn’t about memorizing formulas or doing the same things other people do. It’s about changing the world!” Without realizing it, I’d started students in that class, and multiple generations of their successors, on a surprising quest to link business with mission. Business makes the world a better place as people find creative ways to offer others the goods and services they want, contributing to the flourishing of God’s creation.

We quickly identified a way to change the world together. I helped George and a group of enthusiastic fellow students form a La Sierra University chapter of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a national organization devoted to building leaders and helping students put the potential of markets on display.

Smiling female teacher looking at schoolchildren touching globe in classroomSIFE students organized projects in their communities. They tested their skills against those of students from other educational institutions in a competition that attracted participants from hundreds of schools across the United States. Joining SIFE, I told my students, meant engaging in what we’d concluded was the country’s premier intellectual competition for business students. Our small Adventist university couldn’t afford to field an expensive sports team; but our students could stand toe-to-toe with peers from the best universities in the world where creativity and commitment were concerned.

Each year from 1994-1997, La Sierra’s SIFE students won the organization’s national championship. But our students hadn’t just learned how to thrive in an existing competition—they’d transformed it. Our teams understood education and business development projects that helped vulnerable people, called attention to important public issues, and pioneered business responses to serious social challenges. Over time, what counted as a top-tier SIFE project changed. Our students had made clear that in addition to business skills and creativity, changing the world was an essential part of a great project, too.

The SIFE organization expanded to universities around the world. A national championship became a global one—colloquially dubbed a “world cup.” La Sierra won its first world cup in 2002. Meanwhile La Sierra SIFE expanded, too. Students continued to deliver projects that served their local communities. But now they also worked to empower communities around the world. A “cow bank” project brought substantially increased resources and, indirectly, invaluable infrastructure to a rural community in India; explaining and defending the project, among others, yielded a second world cup championship for La Sierra students in 2007. Before “experiential learning” had become a buzzword, La Sierra students were discovering ways of linking classroom insights with transformative practice.

In order to avoid linguistic confusion in its global existence, SIFE eventually changed its name to Enactus. The organization continued its focus on social transformation. What had been a relatively limited part of its expectations for student teams was now central.

Most recently, La Sierra students moved forward with a project that reflected the transformative potential of technology. Beginning in Jamaica, they provided secondary school students without easy access either to the Internet or to expensive textbooks with an alternative: an enormous assortment of vital educational resources packaged on inexpensive and easy-to-transport flash drives. Partnering with Jamaica’s ministry of education, they dramatically enhanced the educational experiences of over 200,000 students and 12,000 teachers.

Students want to be challenged. They want to be stretched. They thrive when they confront opportunities to test their skills. And they’re even more excited when they realize that what they’re doing matters, that they’re changing the world in striking, tangible ways. Wherever La Sierra Enactus students ultimately put their abilities and their passion to work, in for-profit or not-for-profit settings, they’ll have learned that they can impact the lives of people in their communities and around the world. It’s been an amazing experience to invite successive cohorts of these students on an adventure that changes their lives as they learn to enrich God’s good creation in surprising ways. I believe their experience of education-through-adventure will continue to empower and inspire them throughout their lives.

John Thomas

PhD, is Dean of the Zapara School of Business and Bashir Hasso Professor of Entrepreneurship and Political Economy at La Sierra University in Riverside, California (www.lasierra.edu), USA. Dr. Thomas has been a member of La Sierra’s faculty for almost 30 years and heads the Zapara School of Business as dean since 1999.
John Thomas

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One comment

  • | 7 months ago

    Hello, the article is so inspiring. I am taking a business course myself and I just don’t see a future for myself in the field. The article just showed me that I could actually weave religion into my future field. But I sure hoped I would get more insight about this.

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