Student Perspective: Examining the Path to Social Entrepreneurship

Just weeks away from graduation, MBA candidate Susli Lie reflects on her early stages as the leader of Dana Cita, a micro-lending platform that won the Wharton Business Plan Competition’s first Social Impact Prize, sponsored by Wharton Social Impact Initiative.

This is the inaugural year for the $10,000 award, and promising sign for aspiring entrepreneurs with ideas to change the world.

“Am I an entrepreneur?”

That was the question I kept coming back to over and over again as I began conceiving the idea for what would eventually become Dana Cita.

I was born in Indonesia to parents who were only able to complete high school. Through a combination of hard work, some smarts, and what I am sure was a healthy dose of serendipity, I attended Yale for my undergraduate degree. Those years were transformative and left me deeply grateful for the gift of higher education. It also left me frustrated at how underrepresented Indonesians were in world-class education institutions. This sowed the seed for my interest in making higher education more accessible. But it was only years later that my entrepreneurial journey in addressing this problem really began.

After Yale, I followed the “conventional” path and became a consultant with Oliver Wyman Financial Services, and was fortunate to spend two years in an operational role as the first Asia-Pacific Chief of Staff at Oliver Wyman. Like many of my peers, I was unsure whether consulting was “it.”

When I came to Wharton to pursue my MBA, I interned in private equity and impact investing focused on Indonesia and these experiences convinced me that market-based solutions had an important role to play in addressing social problems. More pointedly, I came to believe that there must be a way to do business that can simultaneously earn profits and serve social needs.

And thus began the start of my entrepreneurial journey.

Dana Cita, which means “Aspiration Fund” in Indonesian, captures my passion and intellectual interest and builds on my professional experience.

More importantly, it has the potential to address a significant market gap, while solving a pressing problem. With 250 million people, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. However, only some five million students are enrolled in higher education. A huge part of the problem is the lack of financing for aspiring students, including no student loan market.

Dana Cita seeks to fund Indonesian youths in higher education through microlending.
Dana Cita seeks to fund Indonesian youths in higher education through microlending.

This is why Dana Cita exists. We aim to raise a mix of patient capital and commercial capital which we will lend to students via risk-sharing partnerships with education institutions and employers. Core to the venture is the model of a commercially viable business which uses market-based solutions to meet the needs of disadvantaged youths.

Through the Wharton Business Plan Competition, I met Tom Schmittzehe, WG ’03, now my co-founder. Tom shares the same passion and vision I have for the company. Winning the inaugural Social Impact Prize is a tremendous validation for us but more importantly, it signals a welcome shift by the Wharton community and affirms Wharton’s growing interest in supporting ventures that are fundamentally disrupting the way we view impact and business.

No longer is social impact in business relegated to the domains of philanthropy or charity, nor is it solely the concerns of development-oriented programs.

I cannot be more thrilled to be part of this change-making process at Wharton, and it is my hope that social impact will become more embedded in future business plan competitions and other entrepreneurial initiatives.

In working through the question of “Am I an entrepreneur?” I have been blown away by the support and generosity of those who’ve come along the journey with me. The entrepreneurial community at Wharton has been a source of inspiration starting from faculty, fellow aspiring entrepreneurs, classmates who have founded their own businesses to administrators and alumni. I have also benefitted tremendously from mentors and industry veterans who have challenged my thinking and helped refine the model. I also owe a big thanks to a community of close friends at Wharton who have walked through the leadership vision with me on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. The entrepreneurial journey can be very lonely, but increasingly, I believe in shared success and the power of helping one another.

Nowadays, I worry less about whether or not I have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Instead, I just focus on the tasks, share the ups and downs, and work as hard as I can to realize the vision.

susli lie headshotSusli Lie is Wharton MBA student (W’14) and a dual degree Masters student with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where she focuses on international development. She has worked in management consulting, private equity and impact investing and is passionate about using market-based solutions to tackle development challenges in Southeast Asia, starting in Indonesia where she is from.