When I read Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s recent article on McKinsey on Society, my first thought was that the tycoon is actually far more articulate about what should be considered the most urgent priorities for social impact than many of my bleeding-heart colleagues have been over the years. His observations—perhaps more accurately described as his call to action—were shockingly astute. But I suppose it doesn’t take a weatherman to look around and see the weather—or anyway, one doesn’t become a billionaire without a keen eye for spotting coming trends, market holes, and shifting world orders.
At any rate, it’s rare to hear business leaders talk about the social challenges of the world and how to fix them and even rarer to hear them speak with the wisdom of a forward-facing vision for systemic change. I for one was impressed.
Branson argues that business can be and often is a “force of good in the world” and that in order to ensure that the business leaders of the future are agents of positive social change, we must support them as they develop their skills, with a special focus on “weav[ing] together their social and entrepreneurial passions.” He mentions the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship as excellent examples of institutions that can nurture budding innovators, creating shock waves of social impact for years to come. But I’d push him—and all of us—to go one step further; as he acknowledges, when “looking at the bigger picture,” these accelerator programs for social entrepreneurs are only “a drop in the bucket.”
His immediate response to this is, rightfully, to look to education. I’ll address that in a moment. But first I’d like to build on what he said about the bigger picture by considering how we can go beyond supporting individual entrepreneurs with their ventures to helping identify and facilitate groundbreaking shifts for entire fields. Ashoka calls this “pattern change,” and it’s something about which we consider ourselves somewhat of an expert. Pattern change refers to an effort to impact not only one community but to fundamentally change deeply rooted social norms, popular mindsets, behavioral patterns, market systems, or government policy in such a way that it permanently and holistically alters the future for the better. As in, once such a sweeping immune response to a problem is implemented, ideally there is no need to address the problem again.
Ashoka and other organizations are afforded a unique vantage point from which to understand the pattern-changing work that social entrepreneurs are championing. We’re able to detect major societal shifts before they even breach the surface, as we watch the concerns and interests of our fellows converge—often without their knowledge. For this reason, Branson’s point about the need to learn from and listen to young entrepreneurs is so important. It’s not only about showing them the way but also allowing them to show us which big ideas will join the ranks of microfinance and the sharing economy as historically unprecedented game-changers. We can’t support these ideas if we can’t identify them—and we can’t identify them if we don’t value their voices.
Young people are authorities on what their generation deems to be relevant to the future; the ad men figured this out pretty quick. And there’s no reason why the social impact sector can’t follow the lead of business (again). Often when we listen, we find that they already have a solid idea of the challenges they’re going to face in their lifetimes.
In fact, if you give them the agency, they’ll begin to address the challenges, too. It is my belief that when you treat children like they are powerless, they become powerless adults. But Ashoka’s Youth Venture—a program that supports adolescents in designing and implementing their own ideas for responses to social problems, many of whom grow up to be important disruptors—proves that the opposite is also true. That why it’s so important to recognize that young people can and must carry out a crucial role in defining what the future of business and impact looks like—not only as embryonic world leaders to be studied but as active participants right here, right now. From Ashoka’s vantage point, we can see this sweeping pattern changing happening right now. Organizations like Branson’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and Young Africa are demonstrating their faith in children and teenagers and giving them the tools they need to develop as entrepreneurs.
But as Branson says, there are also some crucial skills that must be taught by our schools: “Secondary education should place greater emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and on emotional intelligence—all key traits of successful entrepreneurs and indeed successful people.” When children learn empathy, they are better attuned to the needs of others. When they learn critical thinking, they are better equipped to figure out how best to address those needs. When they learn problem-solving skills, they are more empowered to intervene in unjust situations and to implement solutions. The responsibility of imparting this kind of education—Ashoka calls them “changemaker skills”—cannot be passed off to extracurricular programs and entrepreneurial centers but must represent another pattern change that is infused into every aspect of our education systems.
These are skills that can be taught from a young age. But more than simply teaching children, we need to give them the space to test out their knowledge and learn from their failures. Ashoka Fellow Eric Dawson’s organization,Peace First, integrates student-designed and -driven service-learning opportunities and entrepreneurial experiences into public school curriculums. It celebrates the accomplishments of the children’s self-designed projects with a “Nobel Peace Prize” for kids. From elementary school through college, our education systems must incorporate programs like this, and these must be presented through the lens of pattern change over the old “give a man a fish” model.
Programs that give youth the skills and the license to pursue their entrepreneurial and social aspirations allow them to develop faith in their ideas and in their abilities—an absolute essential for disrupting defunct systems. Hats off to Branson for recognizing this; here’s hoping he can convince his peers.