Change, through business

What difference can one business make?

According to Jim Thompson, a huge one: A successful business, he believes, can put food on the table and help an entire community thrive.

Through the Wharton Societal Wealth Generation Program (SWGP), Thompson has the opportunity to put that belief to the test. A project of the Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs, the program aims to confront social problems, create new wealth and help struggling communities around the globe, all by supporting promising entrepreneurs and their businesses.

Recently, the program received a major boost in the form of a $1 million gift from 1972 Wharton MBA alum William Holekamp and his family. The gift will establish the William F. Holekamp Fund to sustain the SWGP for years to come. Currently, Thompson and his colleague Ian MacMillan, the Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, are focusing their energies on Africa.

“Every region has its own resource challenges,” says Thompson, associate director of Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs. “We try and get a reasonable sense of the infrastructure available to the [entrepreneur] before deciding whether or not we can help. We don’t want to run these business—we can’t. It’s not our mandate. What we can do is find people who have the capacity to get done what needs to get done, and then we have the skills and access to capital that are crucial to the successful creation or growth of what they’re trying to do.”

The program has already paid dividends. In an impoverished area of southern Africa, an animal feed business has used the program’s help as a springboard to profitability.The company now employs dozens of people, some of whom had never worked before, and pays them up to $1,000 a month. The business’ success has helped reduce the price of animal feed in the region and could lead to the development of spin off businesses or even help improve the nutrition of local residents.

That project, Thompson says, is a microcosm of what the Societal Wealth Generation Program—and the spirit of entrepreneurialism—can accomplish. And with the new Holekamp gift—which will be used for infrastructure improvements in Africa, new staff support and the sustenance of entrepreneurial ventures—the program should produce similar results in years to come. “This is a movement you’ll see growing for some time,” Thompson says.

Originally published on June 8, 2006