Student Reflection: The Ashoka U Exchange

By Carli Davis, 2017 MBA Candidate
Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business

From February 25-27, I was lucky enough to travel to the Ashoka U Exchange Conference, hosted at Tulane University in New Orleans. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale. The conference is hosted annually and brings together a community of participants who share both interest and experience regarding social change and social impact in higher education.

Prior to attending the conference, I set learning objectives that I wanted to achieve from the experience. Although I didn’t have any expert knowledge, I shared stories and examples of social innovation and entrepreneurship that I was aware of. I learnt about how our food systems are a significant factor in creating social equity. Access to food is extremely important and isn’t a luxury shared by all. In fact, food insecurity may be a bigger issue than I realized. A student speaker from Cornell enlightened the crowd with an astounding figure that over 20% of students on the Cornell campus experienced food insecurity. “According to a Cornell survey, 1 out of 5 students on campus skips nutritious meals due to financial constraints, accessibility or other factors.” To combat this problem, a group of innovative students introduced Annabel’s Grocery earlier this year. Anabel’s Grocery is a student-run store that seeks to combat food insecurity at Cornell by providing access to healthy, affordable food and programming. The store provides discounts to food insecure students in an anonymous manner.

The opening keynote emphasized the definitions of social innovation and social entrepreneurship. I learned about the significant qualities of a changemaker campus. We must develop and share new leadership models to achieve our goals.

On the afternoon of the first day I attended a site visit to Grow Dat Youth Farm. We toured the 7-acre farm, engaged in discussions pertaining to the immense loss of small scale farming and the disconnect between students and food. We looked at the strategies of Grow Dat Youth Farm and understood how students can become leaders through the cultivation of food. I engaged in conversation with other likeminded students that have a passion for social innovation through our food systems. The separation of production and consumption has resulted in unhealthier lifestyles, and people are no longer aware of the origin of their food.

I also attended a site visit to Propeller: A force for social innovation and IDIYA Maker Space. This was my first time experiencing a “hub” for social innovation and the founders of Propeller expressed how important their organization has been in creating grassroots solutions to help offset the difficulties people still face post Hurricane Katrina. Most social ventures focused on water, food systems, healthcare, and educational equity. IDIYA was an incredible workshop that allows entrepreneurs access to a design workshop (containing 3D printers). The model is very sustainable because members pay a monthly fee to have unlimited access to the design lab (similar to a gym membership!).

The second day was just as exciting as the first. I went to a session on social innovation in the crescent city and went on another site visit to The Idea Village + 4.0 Schools. The Idea Village proved to be another entrepreneurship “hub” (similar to Propeller). The Idea Village provides mentorship and funding for social innovation start-ups. 4.0 Schools was very interesting and is a national incubator for teachers, parents, students, and entrepreneurs to create bold solutions to the educational problems in America. I learnt from field experts about the newest trends and innovations in higher education from my visit to 4.0 Schools. It was very interesting to hear about the future of education and how experiential learning will play an increasingly important role.

The final day we heard from a number of inspirational speakers. The closing keynote explored what it takes to lead with emotional intelligence, to cultivate collaborative team cultures, and to create systems change. From turning around a university on the brink of collapse to macro level education policy, speakers shared how they have gone beyond status quo to create new leadership paradigms.

I enjoyed listening to Vishnu Swamianthan (Ashoka leader for South East Asia). He spoke about the importance of giving, and emotional intelligence – which originates from service experience. He also highlighted the importance of working with a collaborative and passionate team. Vishnu shared a story that touched me personally. He told us that one day in winter he was walking down the road in India and saw a dead body being towed by another man. When he asked the man why he was carrying a dead body the man informed him that the poor person had died from the cold because he had no clothes. Vishnu went home that night and opened his wardrobe to see hundreds of items of clothes he never wore. I could relate to this feeling of having an excess of clothing/products, and felt an urgent need to donate the clothes I no longer use. The world would be a significantly better place if we could all be a little more thoughtful in how we consume clothes, food, and other products.

My trip to the Ashoka U Exchange in New Orleans was immensely satisfying. I learnt so much about the need for constant innovation and collaborative teams to successfully bring about change. I am extremely interested in pursuing a career in sustainability. This experience allowed me to gain insight into the importance of social innovation to help improve environmental problems. Social and environmental problems are often interconnected and system-based solutions are needed to bring about change. I have always been very interested in social and environmental issues and believe that the key to solving many environmental issues will be through solving social problems that exist within society.

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