At the Social Innovation Summit, It’s All About the Kids

Business innovation met social transformation at the Social Innovation Summit this week. Held at JP Morgan Chase and the United Nations, respectively, the two day event brought corporate executives and social entrepreneurs together to network over ice cream, hob nob over cocktails and of course, hear from speakers ranging from Glenn Close to Stephen Ritz, a teacher in the South Bronx and the Founder of the Green Bronx Machine.

A running theme in the summit was the age-old question: do you know where your children are?

Everyone is trying to figure out how to engage the kids. It almost seemed like today’s leaders are coming to terms with the fact that (despite big talk and UN Millennium Development Goals) most of what they set out to solve – ending hunger, eradicating poverty, getting clean water for all, implementing sustainability initiatives –  won’t be fixed in their lifetime, so they are looking at prepping the next generation, getting kids involved now. And how are we getting roping these youngsters in? Make it fun. And be practical.

Craig Kielburger, Founder of Free The Children, spoke enthusiastically about the importance of enabling young people to be agents of change now – not train to be one when they “grow up.” With celebrity ambassadors including Justin Bieber, Mia Farrow, the entire cast of Degrassi and Jason Mraz, Free The Children now has over 1.7 million children engaged in over 45 countries.

Robert Torres, Senior Program Officer at the Gates Foundation, touched on youth empowerment and involvement as well when he talked about the personalized education movement and the power of gaming in learning. Johann Olav Kossechoed this, his organization, Right To Play, is founded on the notion that activity, fun, connection and community engagement can end the cycle of poverty.

A brilliant – and obvious – point came from John Wood, Founder of Room to Read, when he said that if you want to get kids to read, you need to give them books in their language. You also need to tailor the plot and pictures to their culture. Sadly, Dr. Suess may not totally translate in Cambodia.

Leveraging the obvious and taking advantage of what’s already available came up again when, in a talk on teaching Computer Science in schools, Leigh Ann Sudol, a PHd student in Computer Science Education at Carnegie Mellon, said that the subject was only taught in ten percent of high schools around the United States. In a lot of schools, Computer Science isn’t even considered an academic discipline, it’s treated like gym class. Sudol said when she talked to children about the topic, many said it was the class where “the dumb kids go.”

“We need to connect with the right people, then get the hell out of the way,” said Yana Watson Kakar, a Partner atDalberg Global Development Advisors. Indeed, the focus of the Summit was less about what these leaders can do, and more about what we can empower others to do.