Innovator Spotlight: Madeline Toubiana

Madeline Toubiana investigates entrepreneurship’s role in social change.


Can businesses founded for and by marginalized communities trigger social change? 

This question is at the heart of Madeline Toubiana’s work. As an assistant professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and the associate director of the Canadian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, she studies how people can be better included and supported in changing dominant systems for the better. 

In a recent webinar hosted by the U of A Alumni Association, Madeline articulated how self-driven businesses can be powerful tools toward change — from disrupting social norms and stigma to empowering marginalized communities, including those of immigrants, sex workers and formerly incarcerated people. (You can check out the webinar for free here!)

In this week’s Innovator Spotlight, Madeline shares the moment she learned change can come from unexpected places. 

How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

I study what stalls or supports social change.

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

I want to broaden and diversify our ways of looking at the world and the people inhabiting it. That includes reducing the stigmatization people face because of their race, religion, creed, experiences, and/or work — and finding pathways to a more inclusive society. It also includes broadening the lens of who can make meaningful change in our society — shifting our focus from hero entrepreneurs to everyday entrepreneurs.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

It means breaking the status quo and changing the current equilibrium. Social innovation (which is what I study) means changing the current equilibrium for the better of social good.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

When I was studying the sex industry with my colleague Trish Ruebottom, we set out to understand how social change was taking place in an industry that is very, very stigmatized. We expected that social change would be driven by activism. However, what we found was a lot of change was coming from cisgender women and transgender entrepreneurs. These innovators were speaking about their businesses the same way activists might talk of protests.

It was a turning point for the research and for me a moment when I realized that change can come from where you least expect it and that small-time entrepreneurs can have big impacts.

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

There are so many amazing researchers and colleagues at the Alberta School of Business, and especially within my department, that have shaped and influenced my career thus far. I’m grateful to all of them. However, Michael Lounsbury and Royston Greenwood are two faculty members in my department that have inspired me since I began my journey as an academic. They have shaped the ways in which I approach theory and given me the confidence in myself to ask the big questions that drive my research program.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Innovator Spotlight is a weekly feature that introduces you to a faculty or staff member whose big ideas are making a big difference.

Do you know someone who’s breaking boundaries at the U of A? (Maybe it’s you!) We’re interested in hearing from people who are creating new solutions to make our world better. We want to feature people working across all disciplines, whether they’re championing bold ways of thinking, driving discovery or translating insights from the lab into the market

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