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Isham applies empathy to innovation

By Julia Grace Brimelow ’14

December 5, 2013

“Love is patient, love is kind…”

The familiar words of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians hung in the air of the Bradford Auditorium. Was this a wedding? A funeral? Audience members had filled the venue expecting a lecture on social entrepreneurship…but this sounded more like a lesson in love.

Well, not love exactly. Or at least, not romantic love.

As Director of Environmental Studies, Faculty Director of the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Professor of Economics at Middlebury College, Jon Isham maintains that adopting and embodying agape, the ancient Greek word for “profound, infinite love,” is the key to building a better, more just world.

In his Tuesday night lecture, entitled “Social Entrepreneurship: How to Teach It and What Students Should Expect to Learn,” Isham spoke about the importance of translating the natural human desire to realize one’s potential to love into a potent, powerful platform for social change.

Social Entrepreneurship, he explained, is an innovative way of placing the idea agape at the center of the contemporary campaign for social justice.

Isham began by defining social entrepreneurship, a term coined by Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. While still a student at Harvard University, Drayton spent a summer volunteering in India, where he observed the powerful impact of combining the pragmatic, results-oriented practices of business with humanitarian goals. The idea of social entrepreneurship grew out of this hybridization, hoping to harness the “creative destruction” of entrepreneurship towards the development of innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

Isham pointed the audience to the definition popularized by the Stanford Innovation Review, which states that social entrepreneurship occurs when individuals, indentifying unjust conditions, lead a creative process to lasting, more just solutions. For Isham, an economist by trade, this amounts to asking the right questions, brainstorming inventive strategies and experimenting with solutions, all in hopes of establishing a greater equilibrium.

In the past two decade, social entrepreneurship has become a major movement across the world, with academic and research centers cropping up in Europe, North America and Latin America. But what does it mean for college students? And how does it achieve its lofty goals?

Isham says it all starts with the individual. Social entrepreneurship is a way of understanding the self: who you are and what you can do. You just have to give yourself permission to begin. “Everybody’s a change-maker,” he said, “each of us can affect change.”

At the center of this process is the cultivation of greater empathy and human connection. With these tools, not only can we begin to identify the right problems, but find the most lasting, effective methods to address real, pressing needs, such as human rights and world hunger.

Students, especially college students, are in a unique position to use empathy to unleash innovation. At a time when young people have increasingly professed a desire to live a life of meaning, social entrepreneurship is an attractive model. It might mean working for change within an existing organization, or founding a new type of non-profit. But, while still in the classroom, it means engaging in the most fundamental features of a liberal arts education.

“Social entrepreneurship and the liberal arts are deep compliments,” Isham said. Only in learning how to reflect, connect,  analyze and engage can people hope to truly affect lasting change. Mastering these skills, one gains a greater sense of identity and agency, while also coming to realize that each individual is actually part of a interconnected global community. Gaining such awareness empowers students to ask tough questions and seek answers. Out of a liberal arts education, change-makers are born.

For students at Hamilton interested in social entrepreneurship, Isham suggested the Levitt Center’s new Innovation Fellows Program, “designed to prepare and support students who aim to use innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to address persistent social problems.”

“Students are so ready to affect change,” Isham said. Now, it is up to us to answer the call of agape.

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