Diana Hollmann

NextThought Monday: From Job-Takers to Changemakers – Nurturing Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation in Higher Ed

“Universities need to get engaged more proactively in solving social problems. They combine three key elements to introduce social change: social capital, human capital, and financial capital.”

This call by Ben Powell, founder of Agora Partnerships and someone who himself started his social venture while at business school, is to the point: institutions of higher education around the world are the place where open, idealistic minds meet inspiration and opportunity. Through their unique blend of resources campuses are ideal breeding grounds for inspiring young people to become changemakers that contribute to positive social change on campus, in their communities and beyond.

Organizations promoting social entrepreneurship such as UnLtd from the UK and Ashoka have realized this great potential. As an initiative of Ashoka, Ashoka U for example helps universities to leverage their potential and promote social entrepreneurship as an integral part of their campus ecosystems. Just a few weeks ago, the Ashoka U Exchange conference brought together 500 students, faculty, and staff as well as social entrepreneurs to connect and nurture collaboration for instilling a culture of entrepreneurship and social innovation in higher education. Ashoka U identifies and selects pioneer campuses, supports the establishment of so-called campus change teams and helps them to develop and implement change strategies. Linking change teams to those of other campuses and to Ashoka fellows, Ashoka U leverages the potential of each and facilitates co-creation of social change.

How does all of this translate into practice? Take Arizona State University (ASU) for example – venue of the Ashoka U Exchange conference and an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus. ASU President Michael Crow has a vision for what he calls a “New American University” – a university that not only strives for research excellence but also for positive social impact through entrepreneurship and innovation. Students from all departments are encouraged to enroll in entrepreneurship classes and connect across disciplines. Also the social component is engrained in curricula throughout, e.g. as an ASU student of technological entrepreneurship one may opt to specialize in social entrepreneurship. In teams, students identify community needs to then develop and implement appropriate solutions to real-life challenges through a sustainable venture. Last year, ASU also established “Changemaker Central” spaces providing hubs for students and faculty to connect as well as to access information and resources on social entrepreneurship initiatives across campus.

Babson College, also an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, is another example of blending social entrepreneurship into higher education. Babson changed its admissions process to explicitly include students who want to start social ventures. Once admitted, all undergrad and grad students participate in a “From Day One: Making a Difference”- orientation program that introduces the idea and possibilities of social entrepreneurship. Upon graduating, students can take advantage of the “Social Entrepreneurs Action Learning Project“. The initiative helps recent graduates to start their career as a social entrepreneur providing coaching services and support through a peer community.

To date, Ashoka U has identified 15 Changemaker Campuses – so far only in North America however. By 2015, Ashoka aims to identify 15 more to span a worldwide network of innovative universities that serve as incubators for innovation and as role models for other universities.

With campuses in many countries only slowly embracing entrepreneurship in general terms, social entrepreneurship might still remain a foreign concept at universities for long if not promoted more vigorously. Next to a lack of entrepreneurship mindsets, other major obstacles are an absence of leadership buy-in and difficulties in building a common vision across campus. However, overcoming these barriers is worth it for several reasons:

First, research generated at universities through linkages to the “real world” helps build the social entrepreneurship field and related sectors; for example, in the impact investing space through programs such as Cornell’s fellows program in Environmental Finance & Impact Investing or the University of Utah’s University Impact Fund.

Second, there is a vast potential to inspire minds – nurturing changemakers instead of job takers at a time when young people are plagued by unemployment and are looking for ways to change the systems in place. As Wilhelm von Humboldt, a major contributor to the theory and practice of education, said:

“If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we see at once that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind.”

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