It was as a teacher, searching for solutions to the challenges I saw my students struggling with, that I stumbled upon the field of social entrepreneurship. I discovered countless social entrepreneurs successfully addressing many of the most entrenched educational challenges – challenges from equity in quality to educational finance. Social entrepreneurship opened my eyes to a different way that we might address systemic social issues, an approach that when grounded in innovation and collaboration can spark powerful, sustainable change. It also opened my eyes to an entirely different professional path, a path focused at the intersection between education and social entrepreneurship.
I now work for Ashoka U, an initiative of Ashoka that focuses on growing social innovation and entrepreneurship across higher education. It was my graduate experience at Vanderbilt, pursuing both international education and social entrepreneurship, which has made pursuit of this professional path possible.
An Education in Social Entrepreneurship
My first experience at the intersection between education and social entrepreneurship, as a Fellow for a microfinance organization called Vittana, actually prompted my return to graduate school. Vittana aimed to improve educational opportunities for students in developing countries by addressing financial barriers. But as I worked with their students, conducting interviews to assess programmatic impact, it became clear to me how unprepared I was. I was learning so much more than I could usefully contribute. Deep understanding of both the community with which you collaborate and the system you aim to affect are critical to successful social entrepreneurship. I had neither. Vanderbilt University offered the opportunity to pursue the knowledge and skills I needed to continue on this professional path.
I completed my M.Ed. in International Education Policy and Management at Vanderbilt University between the fall of 2014 and the spring of 2016. I was drawn to Vanderbilt because Peabody College offered the opportunity to develop that deeper understanding of educational systems, while the Owen School of Business offered students across graduate schools opportunities to pursue social entrepreneurship education. I became involved at Owen through Project Pyramid, participating in the course during the spring of 2015 and acting as Director of Curriculum during the following year. The Turner Family Center created a hub for the many other social entrepreneurship opportunities I wished to engage in. Acting as a member of TFC’s programming board, I had the opportunity to collaborate with other passionate board members thinking about what it means to make social entrepreneurship opportunities accessible to graduate students across Vanderbilt.
These experience I had at Owen, coupled with my education at Peabody, directly inform my work at Ashoka today.
At Ashoka and Ashoka U
Ashoka was founded in 1980 to identify and bring together a network of leading social entrepreneurs, called Ashoka Fellows. Now supporting more than 3,000 Fellows internationally, the organization began to wonder what prepared Fellows to succeed in their revolutionary work. Based on studies of Fellows’ early experiences, Ashoka developed a number of programs focused on education for social entrepreneurship and innovation. Ashoka U works with colleges and universities around the world to embed social innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities for everyone, from faculty to students, across institutions.
As the Knowledge Curator for Ashoka U, I collect, evaluate, and share the models and approaches that universities have taken to develop social entrepreneurship and innovation education. The Ashoka U community shares this work through our annual conference, the Exchange, through online learning experiences for faculty and staff, the Commons, and through knowledge products. Through my work with Ashoka U, studying social entrepreneurship across higher education, I have come to realize how unique the opportunities at Vanderbilt are.
Advice for Current Students
While higher education has a reputation as slow to change, the introduction of social entrepreneurship and innovation education challenges this assumption. Students are being prepared to innovate, and not only outside the walls of the university. The Turner Family Center and student driven courses like Project Pyramid provide students the opportunity to become actively involved in articulating and creating the social entrepreneurship and innovation education they aim to acquire. Few other universities offer such flexibility to create your own pathway through social entrepreneurship education, particularly at the graduate level.
So take advantage of this unique opportunity! Think critically about the knowledge and experience you need to catalyze the changes you seek. Consider the pathways at Vanderbilt you can take to achieve this experience, as well as the pathways you might create. Practice what it means to be an entrepreneur, an innovator. No matter the career you pursue after graduation, such experiences prove to be invaluable. And your work now will create educational pathways for the many students who have yet to begin their graduate studies in social entrepreneurship and innovation at Vanderbilt.