Driving Social Innovation in Higher Education

Higher Education February 16, 2016

This article is part of a special interview series featuring global innovators in education (part 1 of 5). Visit WISE ed.review regularly to read the upcoming articles.

The more we shift from the myth of the ‘hero’, the more we can all participate in contributing to change in a variety of ways,” explained Marina Kim, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Ashoka U. In an interview, we discussed the origins of Ashoka U, the landscape of social innovation and higher education today, and how universities need to rethink their entire education models moving forward. 

Tell me a little bit about the idea behind Ashoka U, and why it was important for Ashoka to work at the intersection of social innovation and higher education.

For 35 years, Ashoka has been known for selecting leading social entrepreneurs by putting them through a very rigorous selection process to ensure they are creating systems-changing impact. As a result, Ashoka is now the largest global organization of social entrepreneurs—numbering over 3,300 Ashoka Fellows in more than 70 countries.   

About ten years ago, Ashoka’s mission evolved from primarily supporting social entrepreneurs to creating a world where “Everyone can be a Changemaker.” This new focus has fundamentally shifted our organization’s work to also include culture-change and movement building. It is also where Ashoka U fits in. 

Founded in 2008 as Ashoka’s university initiative, Ashoka U takes an institutional change approach to impact the education of millions of students. We collaborate with colleges and universities to break down barriers to institutional change and foster a campus-wide culture of social innovation. Our theory of change begins by empowering innovators from within higher education as experts to advance social innovation ecosystems at their institutions. We believe that if other colleges or universities can see these ecosystem models in environments similar to their own institutional type, or can be influenced by a common network, they are able to see the value of changemaking in higher education and the tipping process begins.

Today, our 35 Changemaker Campuses share the values and vision of an Everyone a Changemaker world. They have become partners to Ashoka, contributing to cross-sector collaborations and engage faculty, students, and administration leaders in high-level social impact work.

When you survey the landscape of that intersection today, what kinds of trends are you noticing?

In a survey of 237 institutions of higher learning conducted by Ashoka U in 2013, we found that there has been an incredible growth of social innovation programs. Average growth of new co-curricular programs like social innovation fellowships, speaker series and internships have tripled since 2008. We are also seeing more courses, certificates, majors, minors and masters in this area, in addition to new Centers, Programs, Institutes and Initiatives related to social innovation, social impact, design thinking and social entrepreneurship. We believe that students demand a relevant education that provides both practical changemaking skills – including as teamwork, empathy, changemaking and leadership – as well as a theoretical understanding of social problems. This has been a huge driver in the growth of social innovation education. 

Another major trend is a shift from heroic individuals leading change to a focus on teams and collaborative leadership. In the past it was only individual social entrepreneurs who founded their own ventures that were talked about in classes. But more and more, it is diverse teams with complementary skillsets that make ideas work and that can bring the impact to much more than any magical individual. The more we shift from the myth of the “hero”, the more we can all participate in contributing to change in a variety of ways. 

We are also seeing a broader range of disciplines emerging with interest in social innovation and changemaking. Originally, only the domain of business schools and MBA students, faculty are continually adding new courses certificates and minors social innovation. Participation in these new opportunities has now spread to include undergraduate students from public policy to public health schools, from political science to design, from engineering to history and much more. Indeed, there are many other social innovation trends to consider as well.

What is “Changemaker Education”? 

Ashoka’s ultimate vision is to create a world where everyone can be a changemaker. We believe it is the only way that social change will finally outpace social problems. For this to happen, we all must see ourselves as capable of changing our world and being equipped with the skills to do so. Only then can we create a world where people feel empowered to tackle the economic and social realities we face.

Changemaker education starts with teachers who see themselves as changemakers and feel agency to build an engaging learning experience for the students in their class. A few key building blocks of a changemaker education includes: 

  • Empathy to identify an issue/problem that you can work on, and also self-awareness to know your own strengths and weaknesses
  • Teamwork to rally a group of people to work on it as a committed group, and learn how to communicate and collaborate with others 
  • Leadership to persevere despite things not going as planned, and being harder than expected.


In pursuit of integrating social innovation and higher education, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered or observed? 

Ashoka U’s approach and philosophy to campus change involves a dramatic overhaul of the way the campus operates. It is not just about adding a course or a new program, it includes rethinking and redesigning the campus culture and ways of operating. 

For example:

  • Breaking down hierarchies: we encourage students to work with faculty and staff, who in turn work with senior university leaders to rethink the role of the university. We want to ensure that this symbolizes a more inclusive approach to change: listening to and valuing where ideas come from, regardless of whose idea it is. 
  • Rewiring campus relationships and power dynamics: we encourage a new way for faculty and staff to operate, where the emphasis is on collaboration and focusing on the big campus-wide strategy rather than your particular initiative.  
  • Changing campus culture in addition to curriculum change: it is important to foster a culture of inclusion, innovation, and permission to make change. This is the best way to build the capacity for individuals to be changemakers and embody changemaking throughout all aspects of operating a campus, rather than only discussing it within a classroom. 

Once there is momentum for social innovation ideas and programs, then the biggest challenges include:

  • Slow timelines for change on campuses: often curricular changes can take 1 to 3 years, regardless of how simple or complex the change may be. 
  • Expertise for areas that haven’t ever been done before: a lot of what is getting launched is being done for the first time, and that is difficult to build capacity for. 
  • Leadership buy-in: in many cases the demand for social innovation has emerged from students and can grow to include a handful of faculty and staff. We have found that it helps to have a process of stakeholder and strategic engagement of key parties across campus that includes senior university leaders. 


At the same time, what are some of the biggest opportunities to truly impact these institutions, faculty members and students? 

The biggest opportunity is a massive mindset shift. Imagine parents and students demanding an educational experience where students are learning how to contribute to change and how to align that with their academic interests and their future professional goals. Imagine primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions with an institutional commitment to rigorous academics that were infused with real-world learning, application and impact.

Once you have changemaker teachers and students that are starting to see their potential, the overarching institutional culture needs to be aligned and reinforce the same message. Thus we need educational institutions where the Principal—in the case of primary or secondary education—or the President—in the case of colleges or universities—who understand the importance of changemaking being a core institutional priority. 

With all these mutually reinforcing pieces, there is the ability to start thinking anew so that the next generation can grow up and contribute to solving the very tough economic and social challenges we face today. 

About the Innovator

Marina Kim, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Ashoka U

Marina’s work in social entrepreneurship dates back over a decade. She started at Stanford University, leading the Future Social Innovators’ Network, the Social Entrepreneurs’ Challenge, and co-founding the university’s first minor in social innovation. Since then, Marina co-founded and leads Ashoka U, working with campuses to embed social innovation as an educational focus and core value of the university culture. Marina’s work has been featured on Social Edge, change.org, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times. Marina was named in the Forbes 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, recognizing her work with Ashoka U.