What I Learned at the Sullivan Foundation Retreat

by Daniel Myers, Professor of Mathematics & Computer Science at Rollins College

My name is Daniel Myers and I’m a member of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science here at Rollins College.  In Fall 2015 I led a class called “Starting a Tech Company” that combined an introduction to web programming with fundamental material on entrepreneurship based on the popular book *The Lean Startup*.

Along with two Rollins students, I recently attended the Fall IGNITE Retreat sponsored by Sullivan Foundation.  For three days, the Retreat brings together students, faculty, and changemakers—many from small colleges in the Southern Appalachians—to discuss the theory and practice of social entrepreneurship.

Although I worked full-time in the tech sector before becoming a professor, including some time as an intern at Google when I was in graduate school, social entrepreneurship is a new area of teaching and scholarship for me.  Because the field is young, there are still many possible definitions of social entrepreneurship, but they share the idea of using entrepreneurial thinking to tackle social problems and promote positive change in the world.

For someone like me, the IGNITE Retreat was the perfect introduction to the key concepts of social entrepreneurship.  In addition to the conversations on teaching and research that I shared with my fellow faculty, I came away with many useful ideas that I can incorporate into my classes here at Rollins.

One of the most powerful take-aways came on the first night, when the facilitators led us through an introduction to the four types of social entrepreneurs:

Builders: those who dedicate themselves to implementing a specific vision of social change

  • Supporters: those who use their skills and talents to support the success of others
  • Explorers: those who set off in search of new opportunities, on the lookout for areas where change is necessary and possible
  • Butterflies: those who move about, asking questions and creating connections between the other three groups

These categories are not exclusive: most people are actually mixtures of two or more types.

When we hear the word “entrepreneur” most of us will think first of a Builder—maybe someone like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg who created a well-known company.  Within the field of computer science it’s certainly true that we give a lot of respect to singular individuals with high profiles.

Even if these builders were the driving vision behind their companies, though, they could never have been successful without the support and help of much larger teams.

There’s often a danger, when we speak about social change, to give the impression that the only worthwhile efforts are those that come from singular individuals with brilliant visions and unshakeable belief in their causes.  Those of us who don’t fall into that category — and I include myself here — may question the value of our contributions and the worth of efforts.

Building a healthy changemaking community requires recognition of the value of all participants, regardless of their individual roles.  As I’ve seen in my own classes, when give people confidence that their work and ideas matter, they will never fail to surprise us with their passion and ingenuity.

The hard problems our society faces—climate, inequality, structural racism, and others—won’t be solved by doing more of the same things we’re already doing.  We need new paradigms, new ideas, and new entrepreneurial solutions that push beyond complacency and towards progress.

Since returning from the Sullivan Retreat, I’ve worked to bring the energy and insights I found there back to the Rollins community. I received many tips from the facilitators—especially Alexis Taylor of 3 Day Startup—that immediately showed up in my “Starting a Tech Company” course.  Alexis has a lot of experience leading workshops on the Lean Startup and she shared a lot of advice on the business model canvas, pitching, and data-driven learning for new organizations.

I’ve continued to interact with the team at the Hub and other faculty members on campus that are doing work on social entrepreneurship.  Rollins already holds a respected position as a national leader in campus-changemaking, and I want to help raise our community to the next level of influence.

Finally, I’ve also spoken with members of our computer science community that are interested in starting a club to apply their programming skills to the needs of our community.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with one more exercise we did at the Retreat.  Draw a squiggle on a piece of paper.  Any squiggle.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.21.08 PM

 

Now add an eye, a beak, and two legs.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 5.21.13 PM

The squiggle is now a bird!

Being a changemaker requires looking beyond the obvious to see not only what is but also what could be.

If you’re interested in participating in a future retreat or to learn about social entrepreneurship at Rollins, please contact the team at the Hub for more information.  I’m always happy to speak with members of our community that are interested in using computer technology and programming for social change.

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