This spring, Bowdoin Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BIE) is hosting a “Capitalism for the Common Good” workshop series aiming to engage students with startup development—an agenda that has been met with mixed responses from the campus community.
“When I founded [BIE], there were plenty of pre-professional clubs here, but nothing really focused on entrepreneurship and innovation,” BIE founder and president Calvin Kinghorn ’21 said in a phone interview with the Orient. “I wanted to build a community focused on using capitalism and business to promote the Common Good.”
In the last three years, BIE’s membership has swelled to over 130 students and regularly draws prominent speakers from Bowdoin’s alumni network and Maine’s business community. BIE’s latest project is the “Capitalism for the Common Good” series—a weekly meeting for students interested in learning about, and developing, purpose-driven start-ups.
“We’re trying to bring an experience to campus that not only allows people to learn about starting a purpose-driven business, but also get some hands-on practice working in a team and solving issues,” Kinghorn said. “At the end of the semester, we’re hoping teams are ready to pitch their idea and see if they can really bring it into fruition.”
Some members of the Bowdoin community are skeptical of an event series that associates capitalism with the Common Good.
“I really don’t understand how people think these problems can be handled within the current economic system,” said Jon Sides ’24 in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “If you think that, go talk to the kids in East St. Louis. Sometimes they can’t even go to school because there isn’t enough wealth to keep [schools] from being filled with backlogged sewage. Go tell them capitalism is here to help.”
Kinghorn said that in organizing the workshop series, BIE was more interested in finding pragmatic solutions to social problems than defending the capitalist system itself.
“We both care about the same issues,” Kinghorn said. “Let’s try to work together to see if capitalism can be a tool we can use together to provide a better outcome for the people facing these issues.”
From the perspective of club members,“Capitalism for the Common Good” also represents an opportunity to bridge ideological gaps and engage in constructive dialogue about realistic solutions for major social problems.
“We welcome skepticism, and there’s no better place and time than now—if business is something you’re interested in—to learn how you can improve upon it,” said Cassidy Donohue ’21, co-leader of the club.
In the eyes of the series’ organizers, Bowdoin’s emphasis on social consciousness adds meaningful context to BIE’s efforts to integrate capitalism and the Common Good.
“We learn so much in our classes about the histories of exclusion, and how we can make our society more inclusive,” said Kinghorn. “Bringing that conversation to the forefront is one of the main things that we’re trying to do.”
So far, social progress has been emphasized in Capitalism for the Common Good’s Spring Venture 2021 Incubation Program.
“There are some really promising projects,” said club co-leader Lucas Monserrat ’21 in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “One team is looking to create a soccer cleat that reduces the amount of waste with removable soles, [and] another is building an app focused on community-oriented mental health.”
Still, some students expressed their frustration with the framing of “Capitalism for the Common Good,” even without objecting to the project’s objectives.
“I have no issue with the premise of the organization or event, but I think the titles are pretty tone-deaf,” said Leif Maynard ’23. “As we’ve seen with massive wealth inequality, which has only gotten worse with the pandemic, capitalism does a lot of things well, but it doesn’t take care of the Common Good.”
In the description of the event, the club invoked the social advocacy of businesses like Ben and Jerry’s to support their fusion of capitalism with the Common Good.
“I always think there’s space within the private sector for things to be done in a less bureaucratic way, and much faster,” said Monserrat. “There are quite a few companies that strive to embody the Common Good, which is what we’re trying to promote through Capitalism for the Common Good and our club in general.”