Young Entrepreneurs Changing the World, Thee Minutes at a Time

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Keywords: Ashoka | Energy | Environment and Climate Change | Innovation | Lemelson | Social Good | Technology | Volunteerism & Community Engagement | Youth | impact | invention

Young Entrepreneurs Changing the World, Thee Minutes at a Time

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Can't wait to see "3 Minutes to Change the World" on @PBS? @Ashoka & @LemelsonFdn share some insider information http://3bl.me/75k4fq
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Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 4:40pm

We are excited about the release of the Biz Kid$ special "Three Minutes to Change the World," a new 1-hour documentary on PBS which chronicles the work of four young social entrepreneurs competing to present their ideas to some of the world's most influential technology leaders.

The documentary, airing May 20 on PBS around the nation, was funded in part by The Lemelson Foundation as part of our work with Ashoka Youth Venture to support a generation of young inventors in bringing about lasting impact.

With the documentary airing in a few days, we thought it’d be fun for Gretchen Zucker of Youth Venture, and Tak Kendrick of the Lemelson Foundation, to talk about the documentary and the unique relationship of social entrepreneurship and invention to generate impact in the world.

TAK: First of all, thanks Gretchen for agreeing to do this. We’re all excited for the release of “Three Minutes to Change the World” next week. Can you say a little bit about the documentary and the challenges these young entrepreneurs face in their efforts?

GRETCHEN: This documentary is the story of four young people who discover that they can make a difference in turning things they enjoy doing into solutions to social issues. Karthik realizes he can harness Facebook to connect blood donors to recipients. Vivek conducts the science experiments he loves in order to figure out a way to convert pollution into something of value. Eden explores her interest in solar technology to find an inexpensive way to improve energy capture in solar panels by rotating them with the sun. And Vineet uses gaming to help people improve their health through better health education.

The documentary shows that anyone from any circumstances can tweak technology or innovate. It is a matter of having the motivation to take initiative and see an idea through to having impact. Our hope with this documentary is that everyone who sees it will come away with the sense that “I can do this, too.”

The challenges that the four young changemakers face are fairly typical – convincing others that their idea is worthwhile, getting the resources they need to implement their solution, and sticking with their initiative even if they don’t succeed at first. This is life. What makes these young people succeed is their belief in themselves. Our challenge is to help more and more young people develop that self-belief and give themselves permission to create positive change.

TAK: The four stories highlighted in “Three Minutes to Change the World” are those of the four finalists in the Staples/Ashoka Youth Venture Social Entrepreneur Competition. How are contests like this one important in identifying and celebrating young entrepreneurs with great ideas and technologies to change the world?

GRETCHEN: At Ashoka, we have been one of the early pioneers in using competitions to source innovation and to tell the stories of social change. We are strong believers in open sourcing ideas and in motivating others to adopt and build on solutions. Our vision is for literally everyone in the world to take initiative and make a positive difference in their communities, schools, workplace, villages…everywhere. The more that we can spread solutions for others to build on and for us to tell the stories of ordinary people taking initiative and creating impact while showing how they did it, then, we believe, the more others will feel inspired to become changemakers, too. There is no greater contribution we can make to the world than to help increase the proportion of people who are changemakers.

TAK: At the Lemelson Foundation, we believe passionately in invention’s ability to transform lives, but that in order for invention to reach its full potential to improve lives it must be designed from a deep understanding of the end user’s needs and combined with a solid business proposition that can become self-sustaining. I think this dovetails nicely with Ashoka Youth Venture’s goal of working with young people to take the initiative to start and lead their own social ventures.

Without giving too much away, of the entrepreneurs featured in the documentary there are two – Eden and Vivek – that have a strong technological invention at the core of their work. How has invention been a critical component to the success and potential impact of the work of social entrepreneurs like Eden and Vivek?

GRETCHEN: Eden and Vivek both clearly love science, and technology plays a central role in each of their lives. Eden started experimenting with solar when she was a young girl, and Vivek studies materials science and nanotechnology at university. What is interesting is that they are innovating with the sole mission of solving social needs. Eden is driven to address energy sustainability. Vivek has felt compelled to address the twin problems of pollution and global warming since a young age. Generally, this appears the direction that both business and technology are going in. Let’s encourage this trend! We’ve never understood why traditional entrepreneurship programs sell themselves short by not connecting entrepreneurship to a larger purpose. What motivates people to invent, develop solutions, plan, launch and lead initiatives is that they care enough about a need to do something about it. Why not encourage the “social” part of entrepreneurship and the positive impact that people have the potential to create? Not only will more people be motivated to invent and become entrepreneurs, but also the need for more people creating social impact has never been more critical.

Meanwhile, technology is central not only in the work of social entrepreneurs but increasingly in every part of our everyday lives. It would be difficult to get by in this rapidly changing society, let alone make a difference, without utilizing technology successfully. Invention is about finding new ways to do things, or creating new patterns. This is what we all need to do in order to thrive in an era that is defined by change. Vivek and Eden are scientists who have invented technologies that are are the core of their entrepreneurial endeavors. Karthik and Vivek have innovated using inventions in information technology. In Karthik’s case, he manipulated Facebook to serve a new purpose of creating a marketplace of blood donors in order to save lives, now incorporating mapping technology to connect donors and recipients efficiently. Vineet created games to educate people on maintaining better health and iPhone apps and to send helpful reminders to patients to take their meds. Again, it is innovation of new ways of doing things and repurposing technological inventions, combined with an effective social change business plan, that lead to social impact.

TAK: As I mentioned before, the Foundation is quite aware of the need to deeply understand the needs of end users when developing both the inventions and the ventures that bring those technologies to those who need it most. In many ways, we see this as quality of empathy, something that is a major initiative at Ashoka and Youth Venture. In what ways can this documentary and these four powerful stories help to not only inspire young people to want to change the world, but also develop those empathy skills that are so critical to becoming Changemakers?

GRETCHEN: It is encouraging to see how empathy is increasingly valued in the management and science/engineering fields. The management field is realizing that it takes empathy for leaders to be successful and for institutions to run effectively. As machines take over the routine – and even non-routine – jobs in our economy – what will allow humans to remain competitive will be our ability to handle complex problem-solving, leadership, initiative, teamwork and – you can guess it – empathy. In the engineering field, the ascent of “humanitarian engineering” is a strong sign that our culture is shifting toward valuing relationships and social impact as central to our work, school and community life, rather than separating it out from our nine-to-five job or relegating it to the bottom of our resume. The more we collectively value empathy and social impact in the workplace, in the media and in higher education, the more it will be encouraged and supported in young people as they embark on their life paths.

Our hope is this documentary will illustrate that it was empathy and the desire to understand and address issues affecting others that led the four young innovators to launch and lead the successful ventures they are running today. The more we can foster that purpose and help children learn empathy, the better the results will be for everyone.

TAK: Finally, the Foundation’s support for this documentary is just one facet of our partnership with Youth Venture, which is really about supporting the next generation of young inventors with the skills and knowledge needed to create ventures that bring about lasting impact. Would you care to talk a bit about how our The Lemelson Foundation’s partnership with Youth Venture has evolved, and why it’s such a great relationship for the organizations?

GRETCHEN: The Lemelson Foundation was the first to bring invention and technology to the forefront of Ashoka and Youth Venture’s work in building the field of social entrepreneurship. Just as we believe that the skills of a changemaker – entrepreneurship, teamwork, empathy and leadership – are critical to anyone’s success in school, work and life, we also believe that mastering technology will be core to thriving in this information era. We have fully embraced invention and technology innovation in our approaches to encourage and support young people to realize their potential as changemakers. The solutions that many of our young people have created in technology, such as the four profiled in this documentary, are very exciting, and, this is just the beginning!