Social Entrepreneurship at UVA Receives Award as Global Leader in Social Entrepreneurship Education

Bestowed by AshokaU, a worldwide leader in social innovation education, the award recognizes the extraordinary impact of SE@UVA’s Changemaker Labs

During this time of global stress and uncertainty, the need to develop students who can create real change in the world has become especially clear. This week, Social Entrepreneurship at UVA (SE@UVA), an initiative of the Batten School, was named a worldwide winner of AshokaU’s #MillionsofChangemakers, an award recognizing institutions of higher education that are empowering students to transform society in ways that benefit everyone.

“I am so honored that our work has been recognized by Ashoka, a global leader in social innovation education,” said Batten professor Christine Mahoney, director of SE@UVA. “We have been attending their conferences and learning best practices through their network for years, and I think this award shows that programs like ours, which create infrastructure for students to contribute to long-term impact with community partners, are the gold standard in social entrepreneurship education.”

SE@UVA is a program driven by the power of experiential learning. Through its Changemaker Labs, students not only apply what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world, they do so in partnership with community members and policymakers, which positions them to create lasting change. The program is extremely popular with students, according to SE@UVA associate director Laura Toscano.

“They appreciate the balance of priorities,” said Toscano. “It can be difficult for universities to balance a positive impact on students with a positive impact on the community, and we do that really well. Students can see that they’re making a difference, and they’re also learning from the experience.”

Students in Mahoney’s J-Term class walk in downtown St. Paul, Virginia. Behind them is the newly opened Western Front Hotel, which was a historic building restored through impact investing.
Students in Mahoney’s J-Term class walk in downtown St. Paul, Virginia. Behind them is the newly opened Western Front Hotel, which was a historic building restored through impact investing. (Photo by Earl Neikirk)

Selected from a wide range of social innovation initiatives across the globe, SE@UVA was recognized for the extraordinary impact of its local, regional, and global labs. New Vinegar Hill, the program’s local lab, seeks to advance racial justice and economic mobility, and it recently supported the launch of the first African American led community development corporation in Charlottesville. Social Enterprise for Climate Resilience, the program’s global lab operating on the Caribbean island of Dominica, partners with emerging entrepreneurs who are working to build a more sustainable economy in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Students also collaborate with those entrepreneurs to create pilot projects that can be evaluated for use in other parts of the world that are vulnerable to climate change.

A special focus for SE@UVA in recent months has been its regional lab, Impact Investing in Action, which examines how impact investing can elevate entrepreneurs in Appalachian communities. As part of a January term class, students immerse themselves in materials covering the history of the region before meeting with impact investors and social entrepreneurs in the area. On returning, students study the business models used by the entrepreneurs as well as their social and environmental impacts, and the information gathered is shared with Batten’s investor network. A group of paid student interns then returns to the region the following summer to continue supporting both investors and businesses.

All three labs draw students from across the University, and Toscano says that fact likely attracted the attention of Ashoka’s judges. “We think that social entrepreneurship and change-making are skills that everyone needs, regardless of their field,” she says. “We’ve been able to reach a lot of students by taking an interdisciplinary approach.”

The program’s impact on those students is clear: 54% say they plan to create a social venture of their own, and 80% plan to continue working in the field. The labs teach vital skills for change-makers, Toscano says: building relationships with community members, learning the inherent assets of a region, developing confidence in their leadership abilities and “a nimble entrepreneurial mindset.” Everything students learn prepares them to make a deep and lasting difference.

“Being selected for this award is a real honor,” Toscano said. “It reaffirms that the University of Virginia is an excellent place for students who want to learn how to change the world.”

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