4 Lessons from 15 Years of Investing in Youth Social InnovationRead All Posts
What will it take to end the scourge of gender-based violence that is tearing apart so many lives and communities? How do we more effectively prepare our youth for success in the 21st Century workforce? How are we to deal with the calamity of climate change?
The challenges facing our planet are clear. Developing solutions to those pressing needs is what is so difficult. I want to highlight a few initiatives that are addressing tough issues in new ways—and having a real impact. What may come as a surprise is that each of these path-breaking solutions was launched by a young social entrepreneur under the age of 30.
Take, for example, a gender-based violence prevention program in Iraq that is creating safe spaces for thousands of women refugees at community centers that offer training in legal rights, health, and family well-being. In Indonesia, another youth-run enterprise is closing the education gap through an online marketplace that has already attracted 10,000 private tutors offering classes on more than 100 subjects. And In the United States, a youth-led climate change initiative has empowered students at 100 universities with free cloud-based tools that have helped hundreds of small businesses reduce their carbon footprint.
For 15 years, my organization has invested in the capacity of young leaders around the globe to question the status quo, develop innovative solutions, and inspire others—most notably through our YouthActionNet® initiative. During that time, we’ve seen how this largest-ever generation of youth has become a powerful force for change in their communities and beyond. What drives them? What factors help or hinder their work? How can business, government, and the development community strengthen and support their efforts?
Here are a few insights we’ve gained over the years:
- LESSON ONE: Given their ability to look at old problems in new ways, youth are uniquely equipped to change the world. Their energy and idealism propel them to take risks and think in innovative, path-breaking ways. However, to thrive and expand their work, they need a similarly unique support system that builds up their entrepreneurial and leadership skills, creates global networks of like-minded youth activists, and supports ongoing mentoring and other advanced learning opportunities. We have such a network now of more than 1,300 founders and CEOs of social enterprises.
- LESSON TWO: Change-making is contagious. We’ve seen how young social entrepreneurs are engaging their peers as never before, unleashing a wave of volunteers who are driving youth-led movements across the globe. To ignite this spirit of social action, school systems—particularly universities—need to serve as hubs of youth-led social innovation and learning. Some are already doing so. Toward this goal, we’ve established 22 youth leadership institutes worldwide—a majority at institutions of higher learning—thanks to an innovative partnership with Laureate International Universities.
- LESSON THREE: Change makers require sustained support. Even talented and passionate leaders need help navigating difficult issues throughout their careers, like who are the best partners, how and when is the right time to grow an organization, how do you expand your funding base? This continuum of support services should include transformational leadership training, coaching, and skill building. An in-depth fellowship experience is critical to their development. Later on, these young leaders need continuing education opportunities tailored to the diverse challenges they face throughout their social change careers.
- LESSON FOUR: Young leaders learn by doing. They also grow best when they are exchanging ideas, strategies, and failures with their peers. Over the years, for example, we’ve served as a catalyst to bring these social entrepreneurs together for intensive global and regional meetings where they can share their work and connect with others with similar interests and passions. Such cross-cultural, one-on-one exchanges enrich their entrepreneurial training and spur even greater innovation in their individual fields of interest.
It’s time for all of us to pay greater attention to this remarkable generation of young entrepreneurs who have so much to contribute to society. “We need to acknowledge and recognize the contributions of young people,” emphasized UN Secretary-General Envoy for Youth Ahmad Alhendawi at a recent conference spotlighting the role of today’s young change leaders. Mr. Alhendawi underscored the vital role of youth in achieving the newly-launched UN Sustainable Development Goals. He should know about youth-led development, having launched a youth democracy initiative in his home country of Jordan. He is also a proud YouthActionNet® alum.
So what are simple steps you can take to maximize the power of today’s youth to create and lead change? Invite them to join your corporate and non-profit boards; enlist them as panelists at your summits on health, workforce development, human rights, and environmental issues; employ them in your company. Serve as a mentor. Invest in their ideas and help support their entrepreneurial ventures. And finally, work with others to develop the unique learning and exchange opportunities they need to thrive as leaders and expand the impact of their social enterprises. In 2014 alone, our fellows’ ventures benefited more than 3.9 million lives. Imagine what could be accomplished if millions of current and emerging young change makers had the tools and support to lead positive change.