Kids these days—they're doing big things, like turning favorite pasttimes into viable solutions to pressing social issues. Take for example the four winners of the 5th Annual Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur Competition:
Karthik Naralasetty, 22, has realized he can harness Facebook to connect blood donors to recipients. Vivek Nair, 23, conducts the science experiments he loves in order to figure out a way to convert pollution into something of value. Eden Full, 19, explores her interest in solar technology to find an inexpensive way to improve energy capture in solar panels by rotating them with the sun. And Vineet Singal, 21, uses gaming to help people improve their health through better health education.
These four young innovators, and their stories of change, have been captured in a new one-hour documentary on PBS, "Three Minutes to Change the World" (brought to you by the Emmy Award-winning creators of "Bill Nye the Sciene Guy" and "Biz Kid$").
The documentary, funded in part by The Lemelson Foundation as part of our work with Ashoka Youth Venture, first aired on May 20 on PBS, but will be playing all summer long. Check your TV listings to find out when "Three Minutes to Change the World" will be playing in your town.
Gretchen Zucker of Youth Venture, and Tak Kendrick of the Lemelson Foundation, recently sat down to talk about the documentary, the unique relationship between social entrepreneurship and invention, and how we can best support a generation of young innovators.
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TAK: First of all, thanks Gretchen for agreeing to do this. We’re all excited for the release of "Three Minutes to Change the World." Can you say a little bit about the documentary and the challenges these young entrepreneurs face in their efforts?
GRETCHEN: The documentary shows that anyone from any circumstances can tweak technology or innovate. It is a matter of having the motivation to take initiative and see an idea through to having impact. Our hope with this documentary is that everyone who sees it will come away with the sense that “I can do this, too.”
The challenges that the four young changemakers—Karthik, Vivek, Eden and Vineet—face are fairly typical: convincing others that their idea is worthwhile, getting the resources they need to implement their solution, and sticking with their initiative even if they don’t succeed at first. This is life. A firm belief in themselves is what has made these young people successful. Our challenge is to help more and more young people develop that self-belief and give themselves permission to create positive change.
TAK: The four stories highlighted in "Three Minutes to Change the World" are those of the four finalists in the Staples/Ashoka Youth Venture Social Entrepreneur Competition. How are contests like this one important in identifying and celebrating young entrepreneurs with great ideas?
GRETCHEN: At Ashoka, we have been one of the early pioneers in using competitions to source innovation and to tell the stories of social change. We are strong believers in open sourcing ideas and in motivating others to adopt and build on solutions. Our vision is for literally everyone in the world to take initiative and make a positive difference in their communities, schools, workplace, villages … everywhere. The more that we can spread solutions for others to build on and share the stories of ordinary people taking initiative and creating impact, then, we believe, the more others will feel inspired to become changemakers, too. There is no greater contribution we can make to the world than to help increase the proportion of people who are changemakers.
TAK: At the Lemelson Foundation, we believe passionately in invention’s ability to transform lives. But in order for invention to reach its full potential to improve lives, it must be designed with a deep understanding of the end user’s needs and combined with a solid, self-sustaining business proposition. I think this dovetails nicely with Ashoka Youth Venture’s goal of working with young people to take the initiative to lead their own social ventures.
Without giving too much away, of the entrepreneurs featured in the documentary there are two, Eden and Vivek, that have a strong technological invention at the core of their work. How has invention been a critical component to the success and potential impact of the work of social entrepreneurs like them?
GRETCHEN: Eden and Vivek both clearly love science, and technology plays a central role in each of their lives. Eden started experimenting with solar when she was a young girl, and Vivek studies nanotechnology and materials science at university. What is interesting is that they are innovating with the sole mission of solving social needs. Eden is driven to address energy sustainability; Vivek has felt compelled to address the twin problems of pollution and global warming since a young age. Generally, this seems to be the direction that both business and technology are headed. Let’s encourage this trend! We’ve never understood why traditional entrepreneurship programs sell themselves short by not connecting entrepreneurship to a larger purpose. What motivates people to invent, develop solutions, and plan, launch, and lead initiatives is that they care enough about a need to do something about it. Why not encourage the “social” part of entrepreneurship and the positive impact that people have the potential to create? The need for social impact has never been more critical, so it's important to motivate others to invent and become entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, technology is becoming increasingly important in our everyday lives. It would be difficult to get by in this rapidly changing society, let alone make a difference, without successfully utilizing technology. Invention is about finding new ways to do things, or creating new patterns. Vivek and Eden are scientists who have invented technologies that are are the core of their entrepreneurial endeavors. Karthik, like Vivek, has innovated in information technology; he has manipulated Facebook to create a marketplace of blood donors in order to save lives, and is now incorporating mapping technology to efficiently connect donors and recipients. Vineet created games and iPhone apps to educate people on maintaining better health and has been able to send helpful reminders to patients to take their meds. Again, it is the new ways of doing things and the repurposing of technological inventions, combined with an effective social change business plan, that lead to social impact.
TAK: As I mentioned before, the Foundation is aware of the need to deeply understand the demands of end users. In many ways, we see this as quality of empathy, something that is a major initiative at Ashoka and Youth Venture. In what ways can this documentary and these four powerful stories help to not only inspire young people to want to change the world, but also help develop the skill of empathy that is so critical when becoming a changemaker?
GRETCHEN: It is encouraging to see how empathy is increasingly valued in the management, science and engineering fields. The management field is realizing that it takes empathy for leaders to be successful and for institutions to run effectively. As machines take over the routine—and even non-routine—jobs in our economy, what will allow humans to remain competitive will be our ability to handle complex problem-solving, leadership, initiative, teamwork and—you guessed it—empathy. In the engineering field, the ascent of “humanitarian engineering” is a strong sign that our culture is shifting toward valuing relationships and social impact as central to our work, school and community life, rather than separating it out from our nine-to-five job or relegating it to the bottom of our resume. The more we collectively value empathy and social impact in the workplace, in the media and in higher education, the more it will be encouraged in young people as they embark on their life paths.
Our hope is that this documentary will illustrate that empathy and the desire to understand and address issues affecting others has led the four young innovators to launch the ventures they are running today. The more we can foster that purpose and help children master empathy, the better the results will be for everyone.
TAK: Finally, the Foundation’s support for this documentary is just one facet of our partnership with Youth Venture, which is really about supporting the next generation of young inventors with the skills and knowledge needed to create lasting impact. Would you care to talk a bit about how our The Lemelson Foundation’s partnership with Youth Venture has evolved, and why it’s such a great relationship for the organizations?
GRETCHEN: The Lemelson Foundation was the first to bring invention and technology to the forefront of Ashoka and Youth Venture’s work in building the field of social entrepreneurship. Just as we believe that the skills of a changemaker—entrepreneurship, teamwork, empathy, and leadership—are critical to anyone’s success in life, we also believe that mastering technology will be core to thriving in this information era. We have fully embraced invention and technology innovation in our approaches to encourage and support young people to realize their potential as changemakers. The solutions that many of our young people have created in technology, such as the four profiled in this documentary, are very exciting. And this is just the beginning!