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Patricia Thornton

Visiting Distinguished Professor in Social Entrepreneurship

Patricia Thornton

Patricia Thornton

Doing good for others can be the basis to aggregate customers, donors, investors--to produce profits. Covid-19 is a segue to accelerate this trend.


Patricia H. Thornton is Grand Challenge Faculty and Professor of Sociology and Entrepreneurship, Department of Sociology and Adjunct Professor of Management, Mays School of Business, Texas A&M University. She formerly held positions at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University and Stanford University Sociology in the Program on Organizations, Business, and the Economy. She has visited at INSEAD, Fountainebleau, France and Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University. She has been a Visiting Distinguished Professor at HEC Paris for the 2019-2020 academic year, teaching in the Strategy and Business Policy, Global Alliance in Management Education, and the Inclusive and Social Business Certificate programs. She introduced students to the Lean Canvas method to develop their social entrepreneurship business ideas. 

Her research and teaching interests focus on institutional and organization theory, innovation and entrepreneurship, and the social and cultural factors affecting attention and strategy in solving grand challenges. She is a pioneer in developing the Institutional Logics Perspective and the Action Learning Approach for teaching entrepreneurship using live business plans, entrepreneurs, and investors. She received the George R. Terry award, the highest honor granted by the Academy of Management for outstanding contribution to management knowledge. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University.

During this very special time of the Covid-19 crisis, we asked her questions about her activity and vision about a more inclusive economy in the future.

At the time, when the most vulnerable people suffer more, what—do you think—should become a priority for governments or companies (in France or around the world)?

Systematically target and protect the most vulnerable and the transmission routes. Countries have to consider factors not just within their borders, but who is crossing their borders and the welfare impact of their decisions on other countries. We are a world economy and each nation has a responsibility to other nations in the world economy. Experiment with and accelerate development of therapeutics and preventives. Keep the institutional orders of the medical professions (science) independent and autonomous from the state (politics).

According to you, why and how is social and inclusive business a response to one of the greatest challenges of our times and how can it contribute to “le monde d’après”?

Governments are overwhelmed with the economic welfare and social justice challenges of inclusiveness. The state however is only one institutional order in society. Stable societies shoulder this challenge pluralistically drawing on the attributes of all of their institutions. Public corporations are another with an important role to play. We need to demonstrate new business paradigms showing corporations how inclusiveness is good for their work force, business, and society. Individuals’ values as well are an important source of inclusiveness which means families and communities are central to shaping and socializing values. I think parts of Europe have an advantage in that family values are stronger, particularly in France and have been less eroded by ideology, policy, and market capitalism than for example in the United States. 

What is the contribution of your activity to the creation of a more inclusive economy and to the solutions to the current crisis? 

There are nascent social entrepreneurs at HEC in the Inclusive and Social Business Certificate and CEMS programs developing business ideas and projects to address the challenges of inclusiveness and sustainability in societies. I have had the opportunity to assist these students in developing projects such as protection of endangered species vital to ecosystems, reduction of single use plastic, poverty and hunger alleviation in urban areas, aps to improve education of under privileged children and provision of medical services in rural areas, among others. 

My prior experience did not employ the think (research), teach and act model in the usual order. My passion for social entrepreneurship started by co-founding a social enterprise many years ago before I went to graduate school at Stanford University for my Ph.D, which continues to thrive today. More recently, I joined an Angel Capital group and spearheaded the development of an interdisciplinary minor in entrepreneurship and introduced the social entrepreneurship curriculum. This places me at the heart of research to produce knowledge and teaching to help social entrepreneurs benefit from understanding their theory of change and the best practices for implementing it. Research is showing that hybrid models linking social welfare and market capitalism are effective, particularly when seeded early in those without prior experience separating the two logics.

Which advice would you give to young entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs who would like to have an impact and participate to the re-foundation of business? 

I believe we are at an opportune moment in the development of entrepreneurship and innovation theory and practice where we have sufficient knowledge and the conditions of “creative destruction” at play opening avenues for new products, services, and ways of organizing. We are applying normal science models to the stages of start-ups. The Entrepreneurship Division of the Academy of Management is the fastest growing division and has the most vibrant job market. This means we are producing knowledge on the best way to start companies at a rapid pace. This knowledge is increasingly accessible and ubiquitous on the web. The financial costs and risks of starting a company are diminishing over time because of the advance of knowledge, for example the development of the lean canvas method and technology that makes it easier to target and reach potential customers, advocates, investors and donors. Social entrepreneurship as a concept has existed for some time, at least 20 years, but has not scaled well hinged only to a philanthropic non-profit model. Propelling social entrepreneurship by integrating it with commercial business models will enable the ability to scale social entrepreneurship, supporting it with capital structures that philanthropy and the state could not in the past match and can’t afford in the future. This hybrid approach is a harbinger for new exemplary models in the competitive arena of market-based corporations. It used to be that entrepreneurs spent a career making money to then in their later years gave back to society. Now this process of making commerce and making good can be paired and accelerated from the very beginning of entrepreneurs’ careers. Doing good for others can be the basis to aggregate customers, donors, investors—to produce profits. Covid-19 is a segue to accelerate this trend. There is huge potential for individuals as social entrepreneurs to make a difference simultaneously in the commercial and philanthropic world.


More about the Inclusive and Social Business Certificate?

More about the Master in Sustainability and Social Innovation?