Martin Burt at WPI

Martin Burt, Social Entrepreneur in Residence, Returns

Yearly Visit to WPI Energizes Students
February 13, 2019

Social entrepreneur Martin Burt makes his annual return to WPI this week to share his experiences with students and help them understand what social entrepreneurship is all about.

Many on campus are familiar with Burt’s work as the founder of Poverty Stoplight through Fundación Paraguaya, and he typically speaks to different classes and student organizations each visit.

Martin Burt

Burt’s approach is valuable as social entrepreneurship touches on the world’s complex problems and making a difference. According to Kris Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies, Burt will talk with several classes, as well as faculty, students, student organizations, and a local social entrepreneur. On February 13, Burt will also give two presentations open to the community. A brown bag lunch invites discussion among attendees, and his evening talk, “Careers that Feed the Soul and Fill the Fridge,” will address the relationship between having a career you dream about while also using your skills to make a change in the world.

Building a Life of Meaning

For many, combining the two seems out of reach, but Burt says it’s entirely possible and that’s why he is driven to address it. “Fear is what keeps us from our dreams,” he says. And, he says, fear holds many people back from pursuing a life that is satisfying and financially sustaining as they are afraid of being able to pay big student loan bills, not disappointing parents, or remaining loyal to their degree field. Even making a fool of oneself is enough to keep many people from doing what they know will make them happy.

“People don’t want to be called superficial or weak or they want to have the stuff winners have,” says Burt. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a field called social entrepreneurship.”

Burt says students aren’t aware they can make a difference in the world while they are making a living in their fields. Involvement and commitment take many forms. “You can be at the forefront or the background and be a steward of change in the world while being loyal to your career,” he says.

Wobbe says this perspective is valuable for students to hear. “Martin is particularly effective in presenting the students with different perspectives and broadening their thinking about any projects they may be contemplating,” she says. “And he is inspiring—he routinely and convincingly tells our students that they will be bringing the skills desperately needed to solve the world’s problems.”  

Some people have a definite idea of the change they can create, but under the strains of life’s responsibilities, they wait to set a plan in motion until retirement. “We all want to live a life with purpose,” Burt says. “Some fear a life with purpose is not compatible with having a nice car, a nice house, and being able to send your kids to college.”

Skills from WPI Are in High Demand

Burt wants to show students how it is being done and let them know their STEM skills are especially needed. “The process of building a Tesla or a rocket is the same as trying to figure out how to provide housing for low-income families,” he says. “I want to give students a measure of options.”

Students can’t just wait for something to happen, he says. “It can be done, but you have to talk to people. Allow yourself to dream, find your tribe, and avoid toxic people. Ask, ‘Does this person energize me or weaken me?’”

“Martin is particularly effective in presenting the students with different perspectives and broadening their thinking about any projects they may be contemplating.” -- Kris Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies 

Burt says he found his own tribe early, and it still includes some friends from high school. They do not all do what he does, nor are they all like him, but they encourage him and support him. Finding a partner in life, someone you love and who supports you and gives you energy, is also a necessary component of a happy, productive life. Mentors are vital for students seeking a path that helps them have a successful and sustainable career while also creating change in the world. And when you reach a point where you can advise others, you have a responsibility to do so, he says.

As Burt returns to campus each year (with a big bowl of clam chowder in his sights), he is compelled to tell motivated students that the life they have is a journey. Don’t rush to do everything at once and understand that at times your priorities will change.

“You may not do everything your first year after graduation,” he says. “Life is long, and it is beautiful.”

--By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil


Careers Also Take Center Stage Next Week

WPI's Spring Career Fair will be held next Thursday, February 21, from 12-4 p.m. in the Sports & Recreation Center. Approximately 200 employers will be on hand to meet with students and alumni from all degrees and disciplines seeking a full-time job, internship, co-op or part-time experience. Learn more.