Jacobson Fellows create online Social Enterprise Law Tracker to keep up with quickly evolving field

Social entrepreneurship—the application of business techniques to social problems—has become increasingly tied to legal curricula in recent years as the line between private enterprise and nonprofit continues to blur. The speed of this shift has left both entrepreneurs and legal practitioners scrambling to keep up with the most current information about social enterprise, with different relevant laws in every US state. That’s why Shawn Pelsinger ’09, LLM ’10 and Robert Esposito, who were both Jacobson Fellows in Law & Social Enterprise at NYU Law during the 2013-14 academic year, decided to create a one-stop online resource for the entire country: the Social Enterprise Law Tracker.

Shawn Pelsinger '09, LLM '10

Pelsinger, who was also a fellow in 2014-15, had proposed the tracker in his fellowship application. Early in Fall 2013, he and Esposito discussed the prospect in detail. Both were interested in the emerging field of social enterprise law, Big Data, data visualization, and interactive maps. Eighteen months later, the finished product, which they publicly introduced in May at a conference on impact investing and social enterprise, allows users not only to see at a glance what legislative actions individual states have (or haven’t) taken to allow for which types of social enterprises, but also to obtain information on specific legislation and watch an animated timeline showing the increasingly rapid progression of state actions nationwide between 2009 and today.

Robert Esposito

For Pelsinger, the project provided an impetus to take a crash course in the number and variety of social enterprise laws from state to state, and to examine successful approaches to passage. It also allowed Esposito and him “to speak more authoritatively and think more thoughtfully about social enterprise law generally. A lot of the work Rob and I did back when we were both fellows was something we were able to do only because we had looked so carefully at a lot of the state laws and the definitions and where the fine lines were drawn.”

The huge undertaking required the help of students in the Law and Social Entrepreneurship Association (recently renamed the Social Enterprise & Startup Law Group) to aggregate an initial set of data. The fellows also had to seek development funding, which they procured from the Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business and the NYU Stern Business & Society Program.

Esposito, while acknowledging that the primary audience for the tracker consists of lawyers and law students, says that the online tool has much to offer the policy, business, and finance communities as well.

“This is a great example of the law being combined with technology and data visualization in a way that makes it accessible to more than just lawyers,” Esposito says, adding, “Maybe they’re not really sure what to make of it or where else this has been tried. Maybe they would like to know a little bit more about how other states have implemented social enterprise laws, or have tried to address the needs of social entrepreneurs and businesses that are seeking to do more than just create the maximum financial return.”

Both of the tracker’s creators stress the educational utility of having an instantly available social enterprise law data source in any classroom with an Internet connection. They’re already discussing further possibilities, such as expanding the tracker’s scope to a global one, adding further social enterprise categories, and even providing a form generator linking directly from a specific statute to the proper certificate of incorporation that can be filed in that state.

Pelsinger says he could have used the tracker several semesters ago, when he helped teach some classes that would have benefited from it. “I wish that I had had this map to use in illustrating the growth and the competition. A lot of these statutes are competing for the same backers, and I think you can see that play out in the map.”

Posted July 1, 2015