Lisa Di Carlo is not exactly new to Brown — she did her graduate work here in the ’90s — but her interest in innovation and social entrepreneurship is a comparatively recent development. Her route to this fall’s appointment as lecturer in sociology and in the Business, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations Program has passed through research in linguistics (she can handle five languages), transnational labor migration, religious conversion as a migrational experience, life in modern-day Turkey, the ethnography of religious identity, and the migration of ideas.
Anthropology (A.M. 1997, Ph.D. 2001 at Brown) has been the consistent, unifying thread.
After graduate studies at Brown, Di Carlo began teaching at Babson College in Boston, initially in the history and society division, teaching a course on contemporary social problems — bleak stuff. “One of my students asked how I could keep it up semester after semester, and I thought, ‘He’s right. I need to teach about solutions.’ Finding solutions is one of the principles of business. So I started teaching solutions.”
Her students continued to study poverty, environmental degradation, and other social problems but they also studied the people and organizations that were working on solutions. The course began to morph toward social entrepreneurism with a strong anthropological point of view.
“The provost at Babson said I could teach social entrepreneurship, but I felt I was an anthropologist,” she said. “So I taught students how to do research. The focus of our study was on the culture of social entrepreneurs. They had to do field work in social ventures. They had to understand what social entrepreneurship was, who these people were, what motivated them, what was on their reading lists, who they hung out with. To me that’s the only way to study entrepreneurship — not only to read about it, but to get out and see it. I don’t think entrepreneurship can be taught, but I think it can be learned.”
Getting out and seeing describes her own academic experience. The languages came early: French as a child, German in high school, Italian in college. “English was always there,” she said. “I speak really good Appalachian.” She earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Georgia State. The Turkish came in the form of a 1989 job offer to teach in Turkey.
“Turkish was the only language I didn’t study formally; I learned it entirely by ear,” Di Carlo said. “I did that partly to challenge my linguistics instructor, who said it was impossible to learn a language by ear beyond a certain age. I wanted to test that out. It worked.”
She found more than language in Turkey. She was fascinated by the Turkish pre-occupation with regional identity, the historical neighborhood roots of families that persist across generations, even for people who have grown up elsewhere. “That’s how Turks place each other. Even in an internal migration, you see hometown associations popping up. In Istanbul there are hometown associations of people from very small villages on the Black Sea. The only men who go in there to play cards, drink tea, and network are men from that village.”
Her interests in “regional compatriotism” and migration — she would later do comparative studies of Turkish immigrants in Stockholm and New York — led her to the Brown Graduate School and the formal study of anthropology. A Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship in 2006 expanded her research interests in migration to include the migration of ideas and the idea that a religious conversion — Turkish Muslims who became Christian — could involve a change of community and culture that was tantamount to migration but without relocation.
An anthropologist’s appetite for field work and engaged learning serves entrepreneurship studies well. “I prefer ‘innovation’ to ‘entrepreneurship’ because it attracts the interest of a more diverse group of students,” Di Carlo said. “You get engineers, economists, comp lit concentrators — and they’re all learning together. They argue about their particular perspective, but by semester’s end they're drawing from each other.
“Critical thinking and a depth of knowledge from liberal arts prepare students to be quite entrepreneurial. That’s the application of critical thinking,” Di Carlo said. “Students who can get out of the classroom and have community or study-abroad experience come out ready to take on the world.”