CASE's faculty director helps to spread a good idea

October 31, 2017

Cathy Clark’s aha moment came more than twenty years ago, when she had lunch with Lloyd N. Morrisett, one of the creators of the groundbreaking children’s television show Sesame Street. Clark was working in communications technology at the Aspen Institute in Washington when Morrisett, the president of the Markle Foundation, explained he was a venture capitalist.

Clark, now CASE’s faculty director, didn’t know what he was talking about.

Morrisett explained that there were financial institutions that invested in growing companies that want to make a social impact. “I thought this was amazing—how you can use money to build enterprises,” says Clark, who, at that point, had only a bachelor’s degree with a major in French literature.

Clark quit her job and moved to New York to find out how Morrisett was able to use new technology to solve educational issues. She wanted to see how he was able to prepare children for kindergarten by using commercial television production elements and techniques to teach children their A-B-C’s.

She was a part of the generation that, with many of her classmates in inner-city Philadelphia and the rest of the country, mastered reading and arithmetic by watching Big Bird and Elmo. “As a teenager, I recall being a counselor at summer camp putting kids in front of Sesame Street on TV, to complement the books we were reading to them.

“I was in awe,” she says. “How do I learn to do that?” She wanted to master the knowledge of taking a good idea, testing it in a small enterprise, and then sharing it to address the needs of the masses. This became her first lesson in how to scale a project.

Most ideas stay really small, but Clark says she wanted to examine how to reach more people with a good idea. Encouraged by Morrisett, Clark eventually earned an M.B.A. at Columbia University. Then she returned to Columbia to teach for nine years before coming to Duke.

Clark was recruited by Greg Dees, the founder of CASE, in 2007. She started as an adjunct professor teaching social entrepreneurship. Dees and Clark had compatible views of the field, despite coming from different backgrounds. She came with a New York network of for-profit enterprises interested in making a social impact. Meanwhile, Dees had worked in rural Kentucky with nonprofits wanting to do the same.

“CASE is about the discipline of what business principles can add to the pursuit of social impact,” Clark says. “What can you learn about marketing? How can finance propel a good idea forward faster? How do you take good ideas and grow them? How do you grow innovation? How do you figure out if it’s working? How do you attract people to help you?”

Recently, Clark served as the lead author of CASE’s online learning series, CASE Smart Impact Capital. She also coauthored, along with CASE Executive Director Erin Worsham and Director of Programs Robyn Fehrman, the Scaling Pathways series, a partnership among CASE, the Skoll Foundation, USAID’s Global Development Lab, and Mercy Corps that explores strategies to solve widespread, seemingly intractable social problems.

She was named, in 2014, one of the top-twenty women in the U.S. working in philanthropy, social innovation, and civic engagement. Clark has been an active pioneer, researcher, educator, and consultant for over twenty-five years in the fields of impact investing and social entrepreneurship. She also founded and directs CASE i3, the Initiative on Impact Investing, and co-leads the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD), an accelerator working to scale impact of global health ventures in India and East Africa.

“When Dees started CASE, social entrepreneurship was not well understood," Clark says. “He explained what it was. He basically said this is not a hobby, this is a discipline. We can see patterns. These problems are urgent for the people who are suffering. We need to do everything we can to help the person trying to read or to provide food for people in a food desert. Our team lived and breathed that sense.”

“What’s happened in the past fifteen years?” Clark asks, rhetorically. “There are CASE networks now around the world. There are university programs helping them grow. At CASE, we are focused at the graduate level on really going in-depth in the discipline of businesses scaling up a good idea. When we talk about scale, we are not talking about ideation but more about when people hit a wall. When your enterprise is not the shiny new thing, and you hit a roadblock. When you need to hire a manager or the environment has changed.

“That’s where the business skills are needed. How do social enterprises pivot smartly? They have to pivot toward impact. And that takes a different level of skills.”