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Building Change into University DNA

Students are demanding education that will allow them to align their values with their academic and career choices—an interview with Ashoka U's Marina Kim.

Marina Kim.

Universities are in the middle of many debates about the relevance of higher education. There is pressure to innovate and think entrepreneurially about how to have maximum impact and adapt to the many changes in the higher education environment. Increasingly, students are demanding education that is practical, will prepare them to succeed despite uncertain career paths, and will allow them to align their values with their academic and career choices.  

I recently spoke with Marina Kim, executive director of Ashoka U about building a campus-wide culture of social innovation; the right mix of classroom, experiential, and self-directed learning; and the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching social entrepreneurship.

Josh Lange: The vision statement of Ashoka suggests that it wants to make everyone a “changemaker.” Why should everyone be a changemaker?

Marina Kim: Ashoka started with the mission of building and globalizing the professional field of social entrepreneurship by selecting and supporting leading social entrepreneurs, who we designate as Ashoka fellows. From the beginning, Ashoka tried to build and define what it means to be a social entrepreneur, but now we have reached the tipping point of public consciousness and it is becoming more recognized as a term and professional identity.

All social entrepreneurs are essentially changing systems to create a new equilibrium where more people have more ability to participate in making positive social change. Ashoka has found that the next level of impact beyond supporting social entrepreneurs is creating a world where “everyone can be a changemaker.”

This relates to my own personal transformation. When I was a college student, I found in social entrepreneurship a language, a framework, and an identity that was more intriguing and all-encompassing than “CSR” or “business.” I hadn't quite found my place or the right combinations of values to determine a life path. Social innovation resonated because it was an attractive hybrid of approaches that aligned with who I was, who I wanted to be, and the values I wanted to live my life by.

The university space is really important in the timeline of people's lives, because they're forming their identity, making decisions around their career path, and making academic decisions that will have implications on their future life choices. So for me, exposing as many people to these new opportunities, new identities, and new values during college is an opportunity for real impact on the future generation of leaders.

You have said that the students and faculty are important for the development of social entrepreneurship, but why is social entrepreneurship important for the development of faculty and students?

I would say that it’s all about timing, and what Ashoka calls the “historical moment” or “historical opportunity.” It sounds lofty, but it truly feels like there’s a historical moment happening right now in higher education: a moment of crisis, of change, but also of opportunity. From our vantage point, higher education is experience the same kinds of changes that are happening in lots of other sectors—finance, book publishing, and media.

Social entrepreneurs tend to come in when the system is broken, when it needs updating, or when it needs to be more inclusive or more relevant. There is an opportunity for social entrepreneurs to play a role in higher education, and we have formed a designation for the most pioneering universities called Changemaker Campuses. These campuses require an entrepreneurial change leader—such as an Ashoka fellow—who knows how to innovate from within a university, and who can activate a change team among faculty, students, and higher-level administrators. It’s important to have the ears of people up and down the hierarchy, and motivate them to build an ecosystem of programs, both curricular and extracurricular.

The campuses are intended to be much more than a series of programs and initiatives related to advancing social innovation. Impact also comes from building a culture of change, adaptability, and resilience as part of the Changemaker Campus designation process; campus stakeholders self-identify as entrepreneurs who are creating a new university legacy.

It’s not just elite institutions in the United States that can do it. We really want to include diverse institutional types with different demographics. Right now, we’re looking for a historically black college, a women’s college, community colleges, and universities abroad. We’re trying to create tools, frameworks, and role models that work for a wide range of people and institutions.

One of the criteria for the Changemakers campus is for “a mandate to build social entrepreneurship within an interdisciplinary campus wide scope.” Why is interdisciplinarity important for an education that includes social innovation?

Universities should be designed to match the reality of the way problems operate in the world. Michael Crow, president of one of our Changemaker Campuses is Arizona State University, completely restructured the university, moving it from a discipline-based approach to multi-disciplinary cluster schools that focus on different kinds of real-world issues. He got a lot of push back, because traditional academia often incentivizes specialization, but when you look at how IDEO and other creative, entrepreneurial organizations are structured, it’s all cross-disciplinary teams.

As an undergraduate, I led Stanford’s Social Entrepreneurs’ Challenge. Participants would say that best part of the challenge was working with students from other disciplines, and grad students working with undergrads, because they were never exposed to that in their classrooms. For students, that’s where a lot of the real learning happens; they learn how to work with different skill sets and how to optimize impact.
People who prefer to live life in silos don’t tend to be very entrepreneurial, and they are not the people we want to work with anyway.

The criteria for working with Ashoka U don’t mention anything about experiential or work-based learning such as fellowships or internships. What’s your view on the importance of this type of learning in relation to higher education?

When you’re talking about higher education, experiential learning is important but not sufficient. To be honest, we don’t write experiential learning into our criteria, because it’s where most campuses start when they think about social entrepreneurship. They start by doing an incubator or a business plan competition or a summer internship project; but that’s not actually changing the institution.

At Ashoka U, we have been given a very specific mandate to focus on strategies that have the potential to truly change the system of higher education. Unless you’re permeating academic priorities and values, you’re not changing the system. And if you don’t tackle teaching and research, then you’re not fundamentally changing the culture.

Does any specific educational value come from working directly in the “bottom of the pyramid”—with people on the ground in developing countries, for example?

Of course, but I think there’s danger too. The problem has been scalability, quality control, and cost for programs that do work internationally. Typically, it’s the wealthiest students who can afford to fly themselves over there or the most elite universities that can afford to develop programs.

I fully support learning by doing, and if that’s how students want to learn that’s awesome. I started out as an undergraduate interested in international development, social entrepreneurship, and venture philanthropy. International experience and projects are supersexy, but you have to look at what’s effective and how to learn without doing harm.

I have increasingly mixed feelings on international placements. Especially the ones that don’t have pre-training, reflection, or structured programming built in. There must be a real selection process from the student side, a vetting process on the placement side, and a structured learning process.

It all comes down to making sure that students know their options and have an array of opportunities inside the classroom, outside the classroom, internationally, all of this.
There are a growing number of organizations that are intermediaries, such as Think Impact and Global Citizen Year, but they’re targeting different ages. Interestingly, I see more and more of organizations like this out there because it’s a high-touch, high-cost, quality-control matchmaking process between the students and the placements. They include legal, visa, travel, and home-stay services, all of which require a specific kind of expertise that campuses are not all prepared to manage in-house.

Do you think that students and faculty who get involved in social entrepreneurship have a tendency to be overachievers?

I would actually reframe it. Rather than calling them overachievers I’d call them self-directed. And I would then 100-percent agree that “values-based” and “self-directed” describe two characteristics of people who gravitate toward social entrepreneurship. People who aren’t self-directed would rather get a job within existing organization than do something that has slightly higher risk and more autonomy. But the people who seek autonomy, are prepared for risk, and want to create impact often find that social innovation and social entrepreneurship offers the flexibility and opportunity they need to really test and grow, and to do things in alignment with their identity and values.

To sum up, Ashoka U is really a form of a quality control: Our essential function is to find the best Changemaker Campuses, and to find leaders who can change the campus culture and activate other collaborators to initiate change inside and outside the classroom. It’s these change agents that will fundamentally change the DNA of universities.

The skill that everyone needs to have, whether you are a faculty member or student or president, is to have a vision for the future and build toward it. And I would argue that an entrepreneur or an entrepreneurial kind of person is the one you want driving the bus through a time of change.

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