Lapdesk: The Power of For-Profit Social Enterprise

Last Updated Aug 25, 2009 11:16 AM EDT

What are the most essential ingredients needed to deliver basic education? We can all agree on the importance of great teachers and a secure environment.

But here's one you might not have thought of: a desk.

In South Africa, approximately 4 million young students need desks. Globally the number is closer to 400 million.

Enter The Lapdesk Company, whose mission since its 2004 inception has been to create public and private partnerships to create inexpensive desks out of recyclable plastic for young scholars in Africa. Some 800,000 have been delivered to date.

For many African students, a lapdesk is the first new thing they ever own.

In addition, Lapdesk commits 15% of its annual profit to support disadvantaged children with merit to attend top schools or provide additional support in their current education.

Maria Karaivanova, a recent Harvard Business School graduate, writes of her experience interning for the company on FT.com. The job has convinced her to go into the social enterprise sector.

If you've ever wondered whether a career in social enterprise is for you, read Maria's post about the day 385 new lapdesks were handed over to their new, smiling owners. Here's an excerpt.


"We don't just drop the Lapdesks and leave. Instead, we teach the kids how to use them correctly, the importance of education and challenge them to start thinking about their career choices. Very often we also help with school infrastructure improvement projects. Today, a team of 12 volunteers from the sponsor company and Lapdesk stayed for hours after the ceremony to clean and repaint the toilets and to fix up the classrooms."

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.