Reflections on the Ashoka U Exchange
By Amelia Pape, Portland State University MBA ’11 and Founder, My Street Grocery
“Life is about finding where your passions meet the world’s greatest needs.”
If ever there were a single sentence that could sum up an event so brimming with energy, inspirational content, and brilliant minds, this may be it. The event is the 2013 Ashoka U Exchange, and the above was only one of the many quotes I scribbled into my notebook in an attempt to absorb every bit of the world’s largest global conference intersecting higher education and social change.
Ashoka U is a program of Ashoka that recognizes leading institutions in social innovation education. The Changemaker Campus designation represents a vision that higher education can become a global driver of social change by providing students with the tools they need to change the world. Last fall, after a rigorous selection process, Portland State University became one of only 19 institutions to receive the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus designation. The Exchange provided a forum for connecting current and potential changemaker campus representatives, Ashoka Fellows and staff, and incredible innovators from across the globe who share Bill Drayton’s vision of an Everyone a Changemaker world.
The agenda was packed to the gills with interactive workshops, presentations, site visits, and even its very own TEDx event, centered around the topic of “Find Your Place in the Universe.” Here we had the pleasure of hearing from a variety of social entrepreneurs, including one very surprising and delightful inventor, Eden Full. Eden is the Founder of Roseicollis Technologies Inc., inventor of the SunSaluter, Ashoka’s Youth Social Entrepreneur of the Year, and among other accolades, only 21 years old. If this isn’t an inspiration to act on your passions, I don’t know what is.
Portland State was lucky to have a number of wonderful representatives at the Exchange. Below are some highlights from PSU team members’ unique perspectives:
Provost Sona Andrews:
One of the conference highlights for me was the session for university presidents and provosts. It provided an opportunity to learn about some trends and initiatives, but most importantly it was a venue for intimate dialog and exchanges of ideas. Phillipp Schmidt from MIT’s media lab gave us the most food for thought. There were certainly differences of options on the future of higher education, but no differences in the role that leaders need to take to be change makers.
And of course the major highlight was Portland State University’s induction into the circle of Changemaker campuses!
Professor Evan Thomas:
Ashoka U was an excellent opportunity to mingle with other aspiring and accomplished social entrepreneurs and students. In particular, the overlap between engineering, innovation, global health and entrepreneurship is clearly taking off at universities around the country.
Cindy Cooper, Impact Entrepreneurs Director:
The Ashoka U Exchange was both humbling and a jolt of inspiration. The resounding takeaway for me is that a surge in student demand underpins much of the tremendous growth of social innovation and entrepreneurship offerings in campuses across the U.S. and the world. We’ve experienced this at PSU as well. “There is a cultural shift,” observed Kaitlyn Fitzgerald, a student from Arizona State University who leads their Changemaker Central Student Leadership Team and won a 2013 Cordes Innovation Award at the conference. Students want to put their values and passions to work, and they want their universities to be their bridge to future professions that make a difference.
Getting to hear Ashoka Founder Bill Drayton was also a highlight. He spoke about the shift from a world of repetition to a world of change. In a world of change, we need fluidity and the ability to respond and adapt quickly. One way to do this is through “teams of teams,” as well as teaching empathy, leadership, and innovation to our youth.
There were countless incredible keynotes, including Eric Dawson, an Ashoka Fellow who launched the Peace First Prize for youth, and Marc Freedman who works on the other end of the age spectrum enabling those in the encore generation to launch new, meaningful careers. We hope to bring them and other standout social entrepreneurs to campus soon.
I also enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with several colleagues in attendance: Provost Andrews accepted our Changemaker Campus Award and impressed the audience describing our culture of social innovation and the Provost’s reTHINK Challenge; professor Kristi Yuthas from the School of Business is researching impact measurement and replication strategies, two topics of huge interest to us at Impact Entrepreneurs; social entrepreneur and engineering professor Evan Thomas has developed monitoring instruments that improve the efficacy of cookstoves, water filters and other tools for international development; our alumna and social entrepreneur poster woman Amelia Pape is exactly why we do what we do; and new friend Jacob Sherman from our Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Undergraduate Research, Engagement and Creative Activities is helping to make PSU’s social innovation and sustainability curricula even more fantastic in the near future.
Memorable moments also included any time I looked outside and saw the Sun and blue skies. The University of San Diego was a fantastic host and inspiration for all of us working to create an “Everyone a Changemaker” campus. With billboards and light post flags welcoming changemakers, a hilarious and compelling student body president (Morgan Schwanke) who wowed everyone with equal parts wit, heart and sensibility, and stories about USD changemakers everywhere we turned, USD did a wonderful job.
It’s clear that a gathering of this kind has a profound and personal effect on each attendee. One of my favorite take-aways from the Exchange was the simple notion that our motivation to learn is to connect with others. Though seemingly straightforward, this concept struck me deeply. Why do we seek knowledge? Why do we innovate? Why do we strive to change the world? In some cases, we’re motivated by narcissism, but as Kiva Co-founder and CEO Matt Flannery noted, “the best passion isn’t narcissistic; it’s above yourself.” So, perhaps human connection is the differentiator. When we engage with others, we learn empathy, and through empathy we realize our deepest, most selfless passions. This, I think, is the spirit that drives true social innovation, and the heart of the changemaker world.