Exploring the Next Iteration of Social Entrepreneurship

In the fall, we welcomed  social impact strategist Diana Ayton-Shenker as the first Nazarian Social Innovator in Residence at Wharton.

Named one of “25 Dynamic Women Changing the World” by Good Business New York, Ayton-Shenker is a leader in social impact, strategic philanthropy, leadership and organizational development, and private-nonprofit partnership. She is also the founder and CEO of Global Momenta.

During her time at Wharton, she spoke with Knowledge@Wharton about  working with people and organizations to optimize their impact through social entrepreneurship.

A selection of the conversation appears below. For the full interview and a video, visit Knowledge@Wharton.

Diana Ayton-Shenker
Diana Ayton-Shenker

Knowledge@Wharton: What personal experiences shaped your career and inspired you to become involved with social innovation and entrepreneurship?

Diana Ayton-Shenker: Well, there were lots of them, but the way I came into innovation entrepreneurship was really more by default than design. I was driven and called to engage in work that would promote global social justice. And I thought that I would need to do that through the lens and framework of human rights law, which is how I began and entered this field.

What I found out very soon was that the way I wanted to leverage the law and human rights to promote global social justice didn’t really exist. I needed to innovate that. And it turns out I’m very entrepreneurial in how I do that.

So, before we had the language of social innovation, social entrepreneurship, I thought I was just doing my work — creating new ways to motivate and mobilize people and resources for progressive social impact. It turns out we now call it “social innovation” and “social entrepreneurship.” And I now not only get to practice that, but advise others on how they can optimize their impact and teach social entrepreneurship and provide training in that area.

Knowledge@Wharton: I feel like what people are talking about when they say “social innovation” or “social entrepreneurship” is constantly changing, just as the world is changing. Do you feel that people’s focus or what they mean when they say that has changed over the years? And how has it changed?

Ayton-Shenker: I think that it has changed, and it hasn’t. It has in that by using the language of entrepreneurship and innovation, we’re quite consciously adapting and applying business acumen, business practices, business sensibility and strategy to how we create social change.

And I think that’s a good thing because [the] business as usual of how we … work in the social change sector isn’t sufficient any more. We need new tools. We need new strategies. And drawing from the private business sector is a really creative way we can do our work better.

“Adopting the language of innovation is important and exciting, because it inherently compels us to constantly iterate and reiterate and renew how we create change.”

We innovate in that way. So, in those senses, I think the new language reflects a change.

I also think it causes a change in how we carry out our work. I also think, though, there is a constant of people’s desire to make a difference, people’s desire to have our work matter, to have our time, our efforts, our energy and our resources generate value. Twitter And I think that that’s a very deep and innate human drive. The fact that we can now articulate that and identify that drive in new vehicles, new options that might engage more people and mobilize more people to realize their potential to make a difference is exciting. And that’s where we are in social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also teach social entrepreneurship at The New School. What is the biggest thing that you’re trying to teach the students? And what’s the most important thing they’ve taught you?

Ayton-Shenker: What I learn every single time from the students is there is an unquenchable thirst and desire to be part of this era of social impact, if we can call it that. What I teach and want most centrally to convey is that we all have a role to play in this time and this process. And our world needs all of us. So, no one’s off the hook. And no one’s irrelevant. That it all matters. We’re not all going to be social entrepreneurs, but not everyone should be an entrepreneur to make a difference.

“By using the language of entrepreneurship and innovation, we’re quite consciously adapting and applying business acumen, business practices, business sensibility and strategy to how we create social change.”

We can understand social entrepreneurship as one driver of social change to then identify, “Where do I fit into that ecosystem?” Maybe I’m an investor or a philanthropist that is partnering with financing this kind of social change. Maybe I’m a conscious consumer or a teacher or another important role in this larger picture. But I have a place, and it’s up to me to take that stand and rise to the occasion, because the time is now to do so.

See the rest of the interview at Knowledge@Wharton.