As social entrepreneurship gains prominence around the world, 650 faculty members, students and social entrepreneurs from nearly 25 countries descended on Brown’s campus this weekend for the fifth annual Ashoka U Exchange to share ideas about creative solutions to complex issues.
“This is the only place where students can sit next to university presidents and share their ideas as an equal about what the future of higher education should look like,” said Marina Kim, co-founder and executive director of Ashoka U.
The conference began Thursday at the Omni Hotel with a panel featuring President Christina Paxson, Mayor Angel Taveras, Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and Diana Wells, president of Ashoka. The panel revolved around collaboration between higher education institutions and their surrounding communities.
The conference comprised keynote panels of speakers, other smaller workshops and a variety of talks. The conference’s goal was to showcase the best examples of social innovation initiatives and ideas from 150 universities, Kim said.
Friday’s panel, entitled “Tomorrow’s Talent,” featured six social entrepreneurs who shared stories of their inspiration and success, TED-talk style, to a full audience in the Narragansett room of the Omni.
Aaron Hurst, an Ashoka fellow and founder of Imperative, an organization that helps individuals find passion in their careers, sought to address the question, “What is the meaning of work?”
“Universities have a responsibility to teach students about what their purpose is for their work,” Hurst said. Without a purpose, he added, people in the early stages of their careers are “at a disadvantage.”
David Castro, founder and CEO of I-LEAD and an Ashoka fellow, expressed a different vision of what college should be. “College is not a place, a test or a building,” he said, but rather a “human learning community.” I-LEAD brings the college learning experience to local churches, hospitals and community centers in low-income neighborhoods, advancing the idea that college is a process that can take place anywhere, he said.
The next generation of leaders should embrace “those thousands and thousands of learners who right now are not at the table,” Castro added.
Rafael Alvarez, founder and CEO of Genesys Works, an organization that provides training to high school seniors and helps place them in internships, said the nonprofit aims to transform the lives of “kids without options.”
Rebecca Garcia, co-founder of CoderDojo NYC, said her organization also targets youth. Operating on an annual budget of less than $2,000, CoderDojo NYC gives youth the opportunity to attend technology education workshops, where they learn about topics such as building websites, video games and apps. She encouraged young social entrepreneurs to generate “ideas that start small and grow.”
In addition to youths, the 1.8 million educated and skilled immigrants represent another source of untapped potential, said Nikki Cicerani, president and CEO of Upwardly Global. Her venture trains qualified immigrants in building resumes, acing interviews and networking to help the “engineer driving a cab” attain a “high-impact career,” she said. There are three million open jobs in the country that seek applicants with these immigrants’ skill sets, Cicerani added.
Alan Harlam, director of innovation and social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center for Public Service, called for universities to thoroughly “integrate courses, students, extracurriculars and real-world problems,” redefining the landscape of college learning to make space for social innovation.
The new scholar
The weekend’s program was “unlike any other conference I have attended,” Harlam said. “Learning is so bi-directional” because while mentors gave advice, they also learned new ways of thinking about higher education and social innovation, he added.
The conference was “deliberately not designed for students,” Kim said, noting that a significant part of the audience comprised administrators, faculty members and other stakeholders in higher education.
But this year, conference organizers expanded the “student track,” which included coaching and advising opportunities, said Elizabeth Pollock, assistant director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center.
The conference’s theme this year, “The New Scholar,” was chosen to fit the unique personality of Brown’s campus, Kim said. “Students at Brown use the world as their laboratory” to solve real-world issues, she said.
This theme reflects Brown’s rich tradition of “engaged scholarship,” a central component of Paxson’s strategic plan, said Roger Nozaki MAT’89, director of the Swearer Center and associate dean of the College for community and global engagement.
“The timing of doing it at Brown this year is perfect,” Nozaki added. The conference built on “the momentum already existing at Brown around social innovation,” he said, noting that the Swearer Center’s social innovation program has grown over the past two years as it has received additional funding and increased its staff.
The University’s values were reflected in the conference’s agenda, including in the choice of speakers and topics, Kim said. In previous years, the conference has been held at the University of San Diego, Arizona State University and Duke University, said Erin Krampetz, community director of Ashoka U.
“A different personality comes to light from every campus partner,” Kim said.
The partnership between Brown and Ashoka U brought unprecedented features to the conference. As social innovation becomes an international phenomenon, organizers pushed for more global diversity, bringing together representatives from about two dozen countries at this year’s conference, organizers said. This year also marked the first conference in which delegates from community colleges were in attendance, Kim said.
The conference came to a close Saturday evening with the “Presidents Panel” featuring College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins, Babson College President Kerry Healy and University of Northampton Vice Chancellor Nick Petford. Having a student — Brett Anders ’15 — instead of the usual faculty member moderate this panel was “so Brown,” Kim said.
Cicerani said the most exciting aspect of the conference was “meeting people under 25.
“It’s fantastic to sit with peers, but it’s a huge opportunity to understand the new generation of leaders.”
A previous version of this article misidentified Diana Wells’ position. She is the president of Ashoka, not Ashoka U. A previous version of this article also misidentified one of the three members of the conference’s “President Panel.” It was University of Northampton Vice Chancellor Nick Petford, not President Christina Paxson. The Herald regrets the errors.