The interplay between corporate and university sectors can influence the trajectory of societies, the advancement of communities, and the health of our planet. In fact, universities and companies both maintain a shared center: community. At a deeper level, the relationship dynamics among students, faculty, university leadership and companies will influence whether or not young changemakers can build what is possible instead of maintaining how our world currently is.

At this year’s Ashoka U Exchange in New Orleans (#Exchange2016), Ashoka’s Youth Venture teamed up with leading health-care company Boehringer Ingelheim to facilitate a workshop space where companies, university leaders and youth discovered ways to better invest in and nurture youth-led social innovation and changemaking.

In the interactive workshop, university leaders and young changemakers worked with our panelists (The Babson Institute for Social Innovation, A Global Voice for Autism and Boehringer Ingelheim) in break-out sessions to respond to the following challenge questions:  

How can we, as a changemaker community across sectors, cultivate changemaker paths where passion trumps 'predictability' or the 'status-quo'?

What are the fears/barriers in your stakeholder community that make collaboration on changemaking challenging?

What needs to be in place for you and your community (university administration, student body, company leadership) to build effective partnerships that value youth-led changemakers?

Being a changemaker is a shift in one’s mindset--not in an industry, said several participants. Almost unanimously, participants agreed that a mindset shift is needed today, one where the concepts of social innovation and success should no longer be mutually exclusive.

Sticky notes collected from participants.

Here are some snapshots of insights shared from the break-out sessions (Views expressed are from the participants, not Youth Venture or Boehringer Ingelheim):

  • Students are increasingly feeling pressure to arrest their passions for more secure paths where there is less risk. This comes from increased pressure to never fail at school and the pressures of youth unemployment and competitive job markets.
  • Students face constraints to pursue journeys for changemaking. These limitations are time and finances.
  • Most universities are not willing to integrate curricula to account for extra-curricular projects for community change or social innovation.
  • Students are overwhelmed with coursework and exams and need clearer guidance on where to go to access seed funding for innovation ideas and mentorship.
  • Many students are graduating without knowing what they really want to do with their lives.
  • Rigid academic paths and core curricula at some universities results in linear paths that prioritize what you want to be instead of who you want to become.
  • For some university students, working in a team of teams culture is not practiced enough in the university and there is no space to explore and discover themselves as changemakers and internalize changemaking.
  • From a university standpoint, several stakeholders admitted that some universities do not think to access companies for changemaker opportunities since it is perceived that companies do value or understand youth-led changemaking.  
  • Internally, some universities struggle to have consistent and clear collaboration and communication across departments in different fields. Different departments may be more prone to competition amongst each other.
  • Within some universities, companies are seen as a threat to universities' and community interests. This mentality may inhibit the growth of impactful collaborative partnerships between students, universities and companies.
  • For some faculty, students only show interest in quickly securing a job to pay off loans and begin their independence. Not all students have the space or financial freedom to take risks, explore changemaking and innovate for social good
  • For some companies, increasing economic pressures to grow profits and recruit top level talent restricts how companies cultivate deep changemaker relationships where the employers, faculty and students can collaborate to support young changemakers in a sustainable way.
  • Some universities and students do not trust that corporations really see the value in changemaking, in particular youth-led changemaking.

William O'Neill, Sr. Associate Director, Health Economics and Outcomes Research, Boehringer Ingelheim had the following to say after leading the interactive session:  

I had the great opportunity to recently attend the Ashoka U conference in New Orleans. This conference was primarily attended by students and academic institutions. What was clear about the attendees was that they were not just any students or universities. These were individuals who aspired to be "changemakers" and universities who were aspiring or had already achieved the status as a Changemaker University. This title is not one that is easily bestowed. To become a 'changemaker university', many individuals had to work tirelessly to change the culture of the university.  

In many cases, they had to change a long standing culture focused on tradition and the status quo to one that valued ideas and discussion and debate. It struck me that these individuals had to sometimes take unpopular routes towards improving their environments. They had to find a way to challenge the current state while being collaborative and inclusive to discover an improved way of doing things.  They used words like 'social entrepreneurs' and 'intrapreneurs'.  

Coming from a background of corporate America, I recognized them [universities and young changemakers] as consultants, consultants with a noble cause.  I was also impressed with the universities who had become 'changemakers'. This meant that they had successfully been able to change their culture, something corporate America struggles with and often fails in accomplishing. I also discovered the the people I met at Ashoka U were eager to learn more about my world, and excited about a collaboration with corporate America. They recognized value and something that could be learned by a partnership. This is also what I learned and left the conference feeling. I am excited about the work we are doing with universities [in #MakingMoreHealth] to engage some of the brightest minds that generation has to offer.   


Youth perspective: Melissa Diamond –  Founder of ‘A Global Voice for Autism’; Graduate from University of Richmond

University Leadership: Cheryl Kiser - Executive Director, The Lewis Institute & The Babson Social Innovation Lab; Change Leader, Babson University

Company Leadership: William O'Neill, Sr. Associate Director, Health Economics and Outcomes Research, Boehringer Ingelheim

Facilitated by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din, Ashoka’s Youth Venture

This article was originally published on 5 April 2017

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