This February, I attended the Ashoka U Exchange, a conference for educators, leaders, and students to discuss and learn about social innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education. Furthermore, The Exchange is a platform for people to share their ideas and tools related to changemaking, social innovation, and social entrepreneurship programming. People from unique and varied backgrounds, like Peace Studies and Entrepreneurship programs attended the 3 day conference and shared their experiences working, educating, and participating in the field. I met students who focused on social and racial justice and professionals who ran incubator programs for socially-minded businesses. Plus, Ashoka Fellows offered guidance during workshops and speeches, and were also the creators of not just ventures, but movements, like #100Days100Dinners.
On the first day of The Exchange, my favorite of the keynote speakers, Daniela Papi-Thornton, cited four key shifts in the field. One, the focus of the field moving from social entrepreneurship, and subsequently venture creation, to social innovation. Two, encouraging the end goal of an academic education of Changemaker to become an intrapreneur, entrepreneur, changemaker, not a CEO. Three, focusing on increasing skill development, broad tools and methodologies for creating max impact. And four, changing the unit of analysis, moving from successful measured by a heroic individual to a collaborative, team orientation. The idea that Ashoka was intentionally making changes in ideology on a national level, prompted me to consider how I was curating my idea of social innovation and the skills a changemaker needs to be successful. And so, upon reflecting I came up with a “to-do” list of new ideas, concepts, or changes I want to make in my journey.
Most of these “to-do” items are inspired by the people I look up who are doing these things already. As a student at a school with many different opportunities for programming, academics, and workshops in Social Innovation and Design Thinking, I realized that I have a unique opportunity to customize the path I take and the skills I learn. So, in addition to all the amazing experience in leadership and professional development I’ve gained over my year-long fellowship with the Taylor Center, my love and appreciation of Design Thinking, and my background in Political Economy, here’s a few things I’ll be working on in the near future.
Skills To Add to My Changemaking Toolkit:
Storytelling to Build Empathy
The Exchange was the first time learned about the popular idea of Changemaking and Storytelling or “Changemakers as Storytellers.” Storytelling has the potential to both document and preserve history or memory, build empathy, and foster a deeper understanding of the the problem or situation. I was drawn to the idea of creating a narrative and putting a more holistic emphasis on the journey. As I started looking more carefully at the people around me, I realized that many are already doing this: aligning their creative or narrative work with their interest in social impact, through photography, writing, or mapping. For myself, I want to focus on writing using this platform to build empathy, inform research and decision making, and prompt deeper reflection.
Self-Realization as Study
Being an introspective person by nature, I found the emphasize on self-care and self-realization to be an extremely valuable part of The Exchange. I thought this tied in nicely with a point made in the keynote speech on Thursday: “[Social innovation is] A mindset not a major.” In this spirit, I’ve tried to make a more deliberate effort to realize and address my weaknesses and strengths. One of the people I met at The Exchange was Annika who works for StartingBloc: a 5-day fellowship program that brings people together to focus on developing key leadership skills. After reading testimonials and talking some students who went through the institute, I decided to apply and will be attending StartingBloc NOLA ‘17 with the intention of gaining greater clarity of purpose, passion, and goals.
Using Clear and Intentional Vocabulary
It’s been difficult for me to connect with some of the vocabulary used in the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship. There is a lot of room for interpretation and customization within the realm of facilitation and education. In many ways, I think that this is something that each department or program is able to uniquely shape for their needs. However, in my own life, I’ve realized that a part of social innovation and, more broadly, being an empathic person, is communicating your ideas, feelings, and beliefs with intentionality and self-awareness. For example, avoiding using “code words” when discussing issues of racial and social justice, and overusing and therefore devaluing buzz words, like empathy. I want to be able to communicate what kind of work I’m doing to a broad and diverse audience, that expands past my close peers in higher education.
“Apprenticing with the Problem”
It’s hard for me to say that this is a skill, because it’s really a holistic re-understanding of my place and role as a change agent. This idea is taken directly from Daniela Papi-Thornton, one of the keynote speakers of The Exchange, and the author of a study called “Tackling Heroprenurship,” that reshaped the way the Taylor Center runs its Changemaker Institute accelerator program for Tulane students. Reading her full report and listening to her speak at The Exchange inspired me to be more aware of how I approach “problem solving.” It’s prompted me to re-imagine my role in organizations and reevaluate my goals. This idea has probably had the biggest impact on my ‘toolkit,’ because it’s helped me to realign my priorities and helped me to focus on being the best asset for other people and organizations.
Grant Writing for Interprenurial Projects and Research
Continuing from the above idea, a more technical skill that I feel I am lacking is the ability to write grants for people and organizations other than myself. I realized that as much as I was focusing on and embracing the idea of being an interpreneur, I wasn’t making a strong enough effort to learn the specific skills that would make me the best asset for an existing organization. I want to be more intentional about tailoring my skill set, so that I might be a better asset to existing organizations at this point in my life. After speaking to some local New Orleans organizations, I learned about FundingSeed, nonprofit that offers coaching in things like fundraising and grant writing. I’m planning on taking their Intermediate Grant Writing course over the summer of 2017.
Piper Serra, Political Economy, Class of 2019
Marketing and Communications Student Fellow (2016-2017)
Design Thinking Student Fellow (2017-2018)