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Annarose Zelano
May 6, 2016

RISD LEADS - Making Exceptions to the Rule: An Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship

May 6, 2016 by Annarose Zelano

          On Monday May 2nd RISD LEADS welcomed Director of Social Innovation Initiative at Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service, Alan Harlam, for a session on Social Entrepreneurship. Brown’s Swearer Center serves as their community engagement and public service center where Alan runs a program called the Social Innovation Initiative. Alan started off the session asking everyone for their own definition of Social Entrepreneurship and then sharing one from Bill Drayton that explained it as reimagining problems rather than just trying to solve them.

One question asked throughout the session was:
How can we use our experiences, the things we know from our own lives, to solve social problems?

          He then shared his own personal definition of Social Entrepreneurship that had three main parts: reconceiving the status quo, creating just systems that benefit marginalized people as a whole, and creating solutions that work at an extremely large scale, affecting all of society. Alan pointed out that social change happens not only within nonprofits, but also within government and business. Some real world examples of big solutions that did not involve an organization included Obamacare, Uber, and the legalization of gay marriage.

          Alan shared a Design Thinking Chart that he keeps on his desk and explained its relevance to RISD Students. In the chart, Design Thinking starts with hear, then goes to create and then develop. The first part, hear, Alan says is something that RISD Students already have and intuitively get right away from their own experiences as artists and designers. Artists and designers are able to develop empathy for a problem through their own lived experiences. And because solutions come from a deep and robust understanding of a problem from the perspective of the people that are experiencing it, artists and designers are naturally great problem solvers.

          After showing how artists and designers have the upperhand when it comes to problem solving and Social Entrepreneurship, Alan shared three different stories of students he has worked with in the Social Innovation Fellowship and the work that they have done. Although all three students had completely different projects, the use of personal experiences and stories to solve a social problem was evident through all of them.

          To close his session, Alan had those in the audience participate in a quick brainstorming activity for Social Entrepreneurship. In this activity the group came to a consensus of a small scale social problem that they could work on, always forgetting to bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. The groups then went through a series of questions and activities to come up with creative solutions for the problem. Through this activity they were able to experience how problems can be solved through many different approaches including activism, media and awareness, direct service, entrepreneurship/business, philanthropy, and policy change.