By Sonal Shah, Executive Director
February is Black History Month, an important time to reflect on the incredible contributions and achievements of African-Americans throughout our history. For this post, I want to honor the incredible social innovators and their contributions to the legacy of America. This year, I have found myself thinking about innovators like W.E.B. Du Bois, who used so many tools at his disposal to create social change, from co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to mobilizing civic participation to fight for anti-lynching legislation. I’ve also thought about entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, the first black female millionaire, who used her wealth and success to hire women and fund African-American organizations; and Dr. Patricia Bath who invented the Laserphaco Probe, a device to remove cataracts. These leaders and many more, through their perseverance, profoundly changed and impacted American society for the better.
As we mark the Beeck Center’s anniversary this month, I have been asking myself how we as a society can inspire, grow, and foster the next generation of innovators like Du Bois, Walker, and Bath. In today’s highly divisive and charged political environment, we need more innovators, entrepreneurs, and empathic leaders who can turn great ideas into new models to make the world a better place.
Social innovation is more than just cool ideas. It is creating a culture that values and rewards innovation linked to results, which means: 1) A willingness to take bets on small, medium, and big ideas and giving them a chance to succeed; 2) A recognition that successful systems are those that support creative, entrepreneurial-minded leaders who are not afraid to fail; and 3) Designing a system that can take great ideas to scale. In an uncertain world, we need people willing to take risks to create a different future.
Here at the Beeck Center, we believe in the power of individuals to create change. However, we also understand that innovation can only fully thrive if there is an entire system to support and scale it. Our recent report, The Architecture of Innovation, is a step forward in this direction, providing recommendations for how governments and institutions can embed innovation to achieve scalable solutions and better serve the American public.
Earlier this month, in partnership with the McCourt School of Public Policy’s Massive Data Institute at Georgetown University, we released a 100-day action plan for innovative solutions that can be implemented by the Trump administration. This action plan highlights key lessons from cities as incubators of innovation. The plan also provides a strategic roadmap for federal agencies and the executive branch on how to strengthen and scale America’s innovation advantage in the new administration. This roadmap includes policies, such as creating an outcomes fund, to recruiting for diverse skillsets and engaging citizens through approaches like participatory budgeting. Most importantly, the action plan offers the Trump administration ways to leverage the talent of innovators and everyday citizens to improve all sectors of society.
We deeply value our role as educators, and our ability to grow the next generation of innovative leaders who will drive impact. One of our primary mechanisms for identifying and training young leaders is through our GU Impacts program, which provides experiential learning opportunities for students to work in cutting-edge organizations and social enterprises in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, both in the U.S. and around the world. In mid-March, we will reveal the incredible class of 2017 GU Impacts Fellows who will join the ranks of the 75+ alumni who have been engaged in this transformative program.
We can and must find new approaches to addressing our social challenges. We believe that creating a systemic culture of innovation in government, business, and academia is the key to finding solutions. It starts with bold leaders. So, as we take this month to reflect on the many achievements of the African American innovators who have and continue to transform our country for the better, we invite you to consider how you can support and take part in driving change through your own leadership. Change begins with just one person.