Building Innovators for Social Impact

By Vanessa Faloye, Social Impact Education Consultant

NOTE: This article was originally published on Whatamission and has been cross-posted with permission of the author.

There is much debate as to how social impact education can up the ante in building social innovators. (For an expert and very insightful cross-examination of this ongoing debate, check out The Stanford Social Innovation Review: The Future of Social Impact Education in Business Schools and Beyond). But for the sake of bringing something new to this discussion, first let’s reverse engineer this question of how to build innovators for social impact? What exactly does it actually mean to be an innovator? What does an innovator look like, think like, and feel like? Perhaps you instantly imagine the typically young, white founding fathers of some trendy startup named Airbnb, Uber, or Bla Bla Car? In fact, you probably don’t think of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement who created one of the earliest carpooling systems during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (where black people refused to ride on segregated buses and therefore had to find other forms of transport).

Innovation always seems so shiny and new but to be an innovator is to be a rule breaker; someone who seeks new opportunities to push the boundaries and has the guts to not take no for an answer. An innovator is a risk-taker who disrupts the status quo despite a wall of resistance or a lack of readiness to think outside that box we are so often reminded of. Not everyone is an innovator but for those who are, it can be a long lonely road full of doubt, frustration, and rejection.

So how can we help these forward-thinkers, anti-bandwagoners, and anomalies to threaten our old and comfortable habits with weird and wonderfully new ideas in the spirit of social innovation?

Well, the first practice has already been hinted at above when imagining what an innovator looks like, or rather, doesn’t always look like. It’s a well-known fact that teams demonstrate higher levels of innovation when they are more diverse and inclusive. In this sense, it is important that schools, universities, and non-formal educators make programmes available to both the privileged and underprivileged. Cohorts need to reflect and represent changemakers irrespective of: gender; class; colour; culture; disability; or educational level (not forgetting more subtle barriers such as immigration status and English language fluency). Social impact education must reach those who live with and suffer the ‘problem’ on a daily basis for the simple fact that they are much more likely to creatively and resourcefully solve said problem as well as withstand the storm of executing their solution. So education providers should not shy away from the challenge of empowering the underdogs and unsung heroes of our ‘glocal’ ecosystem but rather find meaningful ways to reach those both lost and found on the sidelines and frontlines of our communities.