Staying Relevant in a Changing World: Announcing 5 of the U.S.’s Most Creative Social Entrepreneurs

Tomás Alvarez, Mike Marriner, Emily May, Andrew Mangino, and Jeff Parker: five individuals who, at first glance, don’t have much in common. Jeff uses his MBA to run a dental clinic, while Tomás beat boxes with high schoolers. Andrew was a speechwriter for Vice President Biden and Attorney General Holder before setting out to infect every student in America with the belief that they can change the world. Mike turned a reality series on PBS into a vehicle for transforming education as we know it, and Emily is stomping out street harassment. They come from different corners of the U.S. and walks of life, and work in wildly different worlds. Yet there is one thing that they all share: Each one of them is fed up with traditional approaches to solving long-standing social challenges so they’ve taken more creative paths..

In a society where “innovation” is a growing buzzword, there is no shortage of proposed solutions to social problems – but there’s a big gap between creating a solution and building a lasting pattern of change. We need solutions that stick – ideas that have a lasting and sustainable impact on the people that need them the most. Stickiness begins with empathy and a deep understanding of the people you’re out to serve, and all the many different people and interests with a stake in a particular issue. The best entrepreneurs build magnetic solutions that are so tuned into their target audience that they attract others to participate, rather than having to constantly push or sell. Their ability to attract energy fuels their idea's growth more than the best conceived strategic plan. 

Below you'll meet five social entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of some of the U.S.’s most pertinent social problems. Through their content, tools, and organizational structure, they stay relevant to their constituents – making them active participants in spreading a solution, rather than recipients of a service.

Like the many Ashoka Fellows before them, their work helps illuminate these problems through a refreshing lens of solutions and progress.

Tomás Alvarez III | Beats Rhymes & Life, Inc.

Real-talk: Breaking the cultural divide between mental health service providers and young people of color   

Tomás is tackling the disconnect between mental health services and youth of color. Dominant practices like talk therapy and case management might make sense for many, but Tomás saw the other side: Young men of color might be in need of help but were usually unwilling to participate in traditional mental health services. In an effort to get high school students engaged in a peer support network, Tomás turned to hip hop – and ended up reconstructing the mental health experience for young people in Oakland. Through Therapeutic Activity Groups, Beats Rhymes and Life helps teens process their hardships and goals with a fusion of teaching artists, trained clinicians, and peer mentors giving them the tools for self-care and resilience in the face of episodic trauma. BRL works through schools in Oakland, CA and The Bronx, and has begun collaborating with state mental health agencies seeking to improve how they reach diverse populations.

Mike Marriner | Roadtrip Nation

Agency: Helping students find their roads in life, by putting them in the driver's seat.

In a survey of nearly 470 dropouts from across the country, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, almost 50% said they left school because their classes were "boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations.” Mike Marriner, together with co-founders Nathan Gebhard and Brian McAllister, is helping to change that, by replacing antiquated career search materials with interactive resources that expose young people to an unlimited number of careers and pathways. The goal? To help students to “define their own roads in life.” With the help of an online archive of more than 3,500 interviews with people from across the country – from the CEO of National Geographic, to stand-up comedians, to rocket scientists and lobster fishermen – students learn to map their interests to future pathways in life. To date, more than 100,000 high school students in 22 states have participated in the Roadtrip Nation Experience, a 12-part curriculum comprised of online lessons pulled from their interview archive, journal activities, and interviews with local leaders regarding the steps they took to get to where they are today. 

Andrew Mangino | The Future Project

Leadership: Unleashing an army of transformational leaders, young and old, in today's high schools.

Andrew Mangino thinks that apathy and disengagement in low-income schools can be reversed if students were truly inspired. To achieve that, The Future Project is introducing a new character into the American education system: full-time Dream Directors, whose sole job is to work with a team of people from across a school—including students, teachers, custodians, and administrators—to help them name whatever it is that they're passionate about and to design “Future Projects” to bring those passions to life. Future Projects have included everything from campaigns to combat peer pressure and conformity, to a citywide effort to get the visions of every student in Newark on the walls of the city’s broken-down buildings and fences. The result is an army of transformational leaders who work within schools to infect the overall culture across a school with the sole belief that anyone can command their environment and effect change.

Jeff Parker | Sarrell Dental

New business models: Combining business savvy with a culture of care to expand access to dental care for low-income kids.

A business executive by trade, Jeff is proving that diligent measures of efficiency and management can achieve a viable non-profit model of dentistry. This breakthrough is making dental care accessible to the more than 14 million children on Medicaid who currently go without any oral health care. Relatively few dentists participate in Medicaid arguing that their businesses wouldn’t stay afloat in the face of low reimbursement rates, tedious paperwork, and “no-show” clients.. Jeff is dispelling these myths with the first viable nonprofit model of dentistry that separates care management from care delivery. The model employs extensive community outreach, improved efficiency, cost-cutting business practices, and a strong "Culture of Care" with commitment to transparency. Sarrell Dental has been able to manage 145,000 patient visits every year across 14 rural and low-income communities in Alabama, and is poised to expand to Kentucky in 2014.

Emily May | Hollaback!  

Stories and technology: Creating a modern-day movement to end street harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a punishable offense: Yet when it comes to public space, the same behaviors we refuse to tolerate in a workplace are an accepted daily reality for many. Emily May is doing to street harassment what the women's movement of the 1970's and 1980's did to workplace harassment. By using tools of the 21st century, Hollaback! is exposing street harassment and building tools to effectively report and address it. Using social media and crowd-sourcing technology, she has created a real-time response to street harassment, allowing victims to anonymously share their story online or via a smartphone app. The result is an immediate feeling of agency among victims and a shared understanding that they aren’t alone – but more importantly, a growing data set that includes the incident's location, which Emily and her team are using to shift the way we look at street harassment. Hollaback! is growing a global movement to end sexual harassment in the public space, with active chapters in 65 cities and 22 countries and growing.