What I learned from teaching social enterprise to 25 global Gen Z students

I just finished co-teaching Gen Z students in a 3 week immersive, intensive, experiential course on social enterprise on as part of the Summerfuel Social Enterprise program at Stanford University. My students were 14-18 years olds hailing from all of over the US and countries including China, Brazil, Spain, Japan, France, and Russia. The one thing they had in common was an interest or curiosity in social entrepreneurship.

The experience of teaching for the better part of 5 hours each day taught me a few interesting things. About working with Generation Z students. About teaching. And, about how social enterprise is received and can be shared. I wanted to share a few of the most actionable takeaways here.

Gen Z students, who are they?

An article in Huffington Post notes, “Generation Z, as they have been coined, consists of those born in 1995 or later. This generation makes up 25.9% of the United States population, the largest percentage, and contribute $44 billion to the American economy. By 2020, they will account for one-third of the U.S. population.”

To say that this generation is our future is no understatement.

I was most curious about how they might identify problems and issues that they find compelling. Many American Gen Z-ers have had formative years under a different political administration, were youngsters during the “Great Recession” when it happened, and have grown up with technology and social media in a markedly different way than generations before them.

Additionally, many students in my class grew up familiar with social impact brands such as TOMS and Warby Parker. I was surprised to note that most had not heard of the Grameen Bank, Kiva, or microfinance. And, many mentioned that they do research companies before making purchases and in the past have chosen (or not chosen) to buy something based on the company’s core values, impact, or past actions. I was also humbled to note that none of these bright, globetrotting teenage problemsolvers had ever heard of my website Innov8social, podcast, or book (though they did each leave with a Kindle version:). Ah, so is the harsh reality of truth.

Our “accomplishments” aren’t received in the way we think they might be

Perhaps it is a consequence of living in a world lit by social media—with its abundance of celebrities, influencers, experts, gurus, and chief-of-somethings. Or, the fact that we have all become creators in one sense or another; but I found that my Gen Z students were not easily impressed.

Definitely not by my background—author, speaker, social entrepreneur, licensed attorney. These things didn’t “show up” for them in a relatable way. Additionally, we had an amazing host of speakers—many of whom are dear friends and colleagues in the social enterprise sector. And, after each speaker, I debriefed with students and noticed a broader trend.

“Accomplishments” to these accomplished, motivated, and pre-career students were a bit empty on their own. It was our stories that connected the dots for them and made what we have done with our time come to life. It was sharing our essential “why” that helped things make more sense.

When I shared with them how my mother’s fight with cancer has instilled a sense of urgency in my work, how moving over a dozen times growing up has affected the way I relate to the world, and my own deep questions about the future of social entrepreneurship in the current climate, I saw them open up in a different way. They shared a few of their own stories and connected the dots about “why” this topic or space matters at all. And more importantly, why it matters to them personally.

When our speakers shared their journeys and the perceived vulnerabilities that have become their strengths and the core of their social enterprises, the students were able to receive and process that differently and in the context of their own journeys.

It was a gentle reminder to me, that in a world with so much digital noise, our authenticity remains our key currency.

Teachers are master innovators

It’s after lunch and the only thing standing between twenty-five teenagers and a sunny California summer afternoon in Palo Alto is your one-and-half hour class. Good luck, right?

Exactly.

Our daily afternoon classes were among the most challenging to plan for considering there was often a significant amount of content, but also that attention spans seemed to decrease exponentially as the minutes ticked by.

I learned to innovate in a few creative ways. If I saw eyes glazing over or the twitching of fingers under the desk (yes, students, I could definitely tell when you were surreptitiously using your phones ;-) I would make up activities on the spot to put them back in the driver’s seat. Questions with partners or practice pitches or “getting out of the building” to gather user feedback. These activities did more than command attention, they gave them a chance to be in the familiar role of creator once more.

My ‘innovations’ sometimes fell flat too. Thinking that content might be more appealing using short videos, I embedded somewhat frequent 1-5 minute videos in my slide deck and utilized a few TED talks already part of the curriculum. Though we discussed each video after, student feedback at the end of the course was that there were too many videos. More interaction please, they suggested.

All of these experiences make me deeply appreciate all of the teachers, instructors, and professors who taught and continue to teach us. Like how our elementary school teachers likely consider what they teach based on the relation of the class session to recess or lunch. Or how summer camp counselors trade stories with each other to come up with the most fun and engaging team building activities. Or how every single undergraduate and law school professor knows that when our laptops are open, and in-between taking notes, we were reading the news or checking our email—and they adjust their lectures to engage us and hold our attention in different ways.

Entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs are recognized and rewarded for innovations that serve as unique solutions to persistent problems. Teachers innovate and problemsolve on a daily—if not hourly—basis, in part, because their user feedback isn’t a survey, poll, or questionnaire away—it is their class of students right in front of them, IRL, and in real time.

Good and 10% better, go ahead and ask

When I attended a public speaking workshop called “Own the Room”, one of the presenting groups ended their mini pitch with two questions that have reshaped how I ask for feedback. They asked “What did we do well?” followed by “what can we do to be 10% better?” Boom.

The elegance and effectiveness of these questions together struck me then, and the questions became a core part of the course as well.

Separating good and constructive feedback is helpful not only for the audience—the givers of feedback— but also the receiver of the feedback. Additionally, asking what didn’t go well or what didn’t you like is not always the most constructive mode for the presenter or facilitator. Likewise, asking “what can I do better” can be so open-ended as to inspire no response at all. The giver of feedback may not know whether to start from ‘if you change every single thing about this presentation’ or ‘what’s low hanging fruit that can make this better’.

However, asking in a way that is relatable and quantifiable, i.e. improving just 10%, proved actionable for both sides. More students ‘popcorned’ responses to that question and they also seemed to feel more comfortable doing so after being able to compliment, applaud, and celebrate the strong points of the speaker, video, or session.

Go ahead and try it. One thing I noticed is that with Gen Z students growing up in a gamified world where they are rewarded for having an opinion by way of upvotes, downvotes, and vote-outs—they do have opinions on nearly everything. And our changing digital landscape has trained them to decide what they think quickly and to articulate the same with helpful clarity.

Just as we are being trained to engage in more human-centered design involving copious user feedback, so too are our future feedback givers being trained to give really good feedback.

Used in the right way, this can be the start of a great feedback loop.

We are our networks

Overall the experience of teaching a subject that is closely related to my personal and professional profile was incredible. It was also a reminder that we not only have networks, but we are a reflection of our networks.

Co-instructor Alessandra Clará, who taught parallel content to her own class of twenty-five students, and I—though meeting for the first time—found many significant overlaps. From social impact events that we unknowingly both attended to our broader beliefs about the role of “infrapreneurs,” i.e. those of us working to build the broader infrastructure for successful social entrepreneurship, we easily found common ground and enjoyed challenging each other based on our individual experiences and communities.

Similarly, the program was organized through the experienced and organized Summerfuel program team. Each Summerfuel team member exuded qualities of openness, ability to create an inclusive environment, and connecting with students in meaningful and fun ways. As someone who moved frequently up until high school, hadn’t I appreciated these “ambassadorial” qualities when I saw them in friends, leaders, and mentors?

We had the chance to reach out to our networks to finalize guest speakers. And, our networks responded. We were fortunate to have human centered designers, educators, social entrepreneurs, content producers, and venture capitalists including: Tiffany Yu, Shalini Sardana, Heather Arora, Brendan Barbato, Ryan Oliver, Regina Sanchez-Gonzalez, Ramil Ibrahim, Jordan Edelheit, Nitin Pachisia, and Alison Berman. They individually and collectively made the topic and space more real to students and asked insightful (and sometimes challenging) questions to help spur deeper thought and engagement.

Our networks are not exclusive of us. Indeed, we are part of them. And, our individual work often reflects some of the core challenges and strengths of the broader space.

What Next?

The morning after final pitches had been made and the judges’ top picks recognized, we were back in class. We started with the question “What Next”. After the highs, lows, and deep work that went into each team’s social enterprise, what could be next for them? I shared a few platforms, fellowship programs, and opportunities that could be relevant to their social enterprise ideas. These included D-Prize, Catapult, The DO School, +Acumen courses, and more.

The program has also been a good catalyst for reflecting on what is next for my work with Innov8social and Innovate Impact Media. There is a great deal that has been learned at the intersection of high school students and social enterprise. I look forward to exploring this nexus further through customized Impactathon® offerings. If you are a teacher or educator who wants to bring an immersive social enterprise experience to your school and students, I would love to connect.

One student wrote in the evaluation survey: “I have discovered so many things about myself that I didn’t know in terms of creativity and teamwork and I feel like this will really help me in future projects and challenges that I will face throughout life. I have been able to listen to amazing people and social entrepreneurs talk and now I [feel] more comfortable and confident when I hear the words “social enterprise”.

When teaching, we can never really know what lasting impact we have. Though, we sometimes can see a glimmer in the distance.

What should we write about next?

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