Class in Session: Change 101

By Amanda Garris Ph.D. ’04

For 75 minutes, the ideas came at a pace of one every four minutes. Solutions for rural education, for the low graduation rate of African American men, for ethically sourced fashion, and support for victims of on-campus sexual assault. These big ideas were the final projects for a class offered through the Charles H. Dyson School for Applied Economics and Management—Social Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Problem Solvers—which aims to equip students with the skills they need to be agents of change.

Led by Anke Wessels, executive director of the Cornell Center for Transformative Action (a Cornell affiliate), the class attracts students from across the college and university interested in socially conscious entrepreneurship.

“While the lens of the course is social innovation and social entrepreneurship, we emphasize the importance of compassion, creativity, and seeing things from others’ perspective when working to resolve social problems,” Wessels said. “In fact, most students remark how their stereotypes and assumptions about the ‘other’ fell away during the course, and they value the opportunity to develop a more complex understanding of issues through the experiences of their classmates.”

Coursework includes reflection, group work, and a clinical internship with a local social change organization, as well as students developing their own big idea for social change. Wessels said an essential step is developing trust, so students can listen deeply and speak openly about racism, poverty and privilege as they work toward solutions.

“While it is extremely important that students have a deep understanding of the problems they hope to address, our focus is on the infinite number of possible solutions,” Wessels said. “They are exposed to many examples of creative social entrepreneurs re-conceiving how the economy can be used to create wellbeing. For students, this context of abundant possibilities tends to spark creativity and optimism in new and powerful ways.”

The emphasis is on projects that are financially sustainable, address root causes, are attentive to shifting circumstances, and are able to iterate in response to reflection, measurement and feedback. Students also have the opportunity to further their ideas through the not-for-profit incubator affiliated with Cornell.

“As far as I know, Cornell is the only university in the country that has a non-profit incubator affiliated with it,” Wessels said. “ Non-profit social entrepreneurs can begin raising tax-deductible grants and donations under our tax-exempt status and receive back office business services as well as mentorship.”