Student Perspective: Reflections on “Dollars and Change”

An undergraduate Social Impact Fellow recaps a recent segment of Dollars and Change, featuring social entrepreneurship professor and impact strategist Diana Ayton-Shenker

The October 23rd show was hosted by Sherryl Kuhlman and Sandi Hunt. Other guests included Nick Ryan of Worn Again, Topher Wilkins of Opportunity Collaboration, and Benjamin Stone, co-founder of Dollar A Day.

“We’re all in this game, and we all have a role to play”

 After finishing up my summer fellowship with the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, I jetted off to Europe to study in Prague for the semester.  However, I’ve been fortunate to stay involved in WSII and to be able to tune in from the Czech Republic to weekly broadcastings of “Dollars and Change” on SiriusXM.

I was particularly inspired by a recent segment with Diana Ayton-Shenker, WSII’s first Nazarian Social Innovator in Residence. Diana has had a truly remarkable career path in social impact, which made for a thought-provoking segment.  She offered insightful advice for students and listeners everywhere who hope to become involved in social impact.

Diana Ayton-Shenker
Diana Ayton-Shenker

Here are the main messages I took away from her segment:

Social impact, as an industry, is a novel phenomenon:

I was surprised when Diana said that “social impact wasn’t a sector” when she was initially starting out in her career.  This really struck me and caused me to reflect on how much the industry must have grown in recent years.  Now, universities across the country have entire departments devoted to social impact and innovation – one of which I’m involved in.

Diana had to create her own opportunities, and she needed to be innovative.  She called herself “a social impact strategist by design, but a social impact innovator by accident.”  She said that the fact that the terms “social innovator,” “social entrepreneurship” and “accelerator” now exist is a “big, new development.”

So we’ve seen that the industry has gone through major growth recently – but why?  What are the driving forces behind the development of the social impact sector?

Diana believes that the growth of the industry has resulted from a “confluence of megatrends,” which has made it an imperative.  The urgent issues that our society faces today have pushed us to reconsider how businesses function and operate. She highlighted the recession and climate change as pertinent challenges that have created this sense of urgency.  However, the opportunity to address these problems has been made possible by recent developments in technology.

 The nonprofit sector is starting to take risks:

 According to our guest, traditional nonprofits were afraid to take risks – they were afraid to fail because of their dedication to their missions.  As a result, the traditional structures of nonprofits didn’t facilitate innovation – which is needed to create “real social impact.”  As Diana explained, “fear-based altruism of nonprofits was an inhibitor for unleashing that good intention.”  This was something I’d never considered before, although I’m not totally familiar with the history of the nonprofit sector.

Now, however, we’re seeing that nonprofits are taking on more risk. They’ve accepted and welcomed innovation and entrepreneurship. By doing so, they’re spearheading the growth of the social impact industry, and they’re validating a notion that we keep revisiting, that “business as usual can change.”

And for people who hope to cultivate social change, “trust the strengths you already have”:

Diana advises many students and individuals on how they can become involved in social impact, and how they can bring impact to their work.  She’s constantly asked the question, “How do I make a difference?  What does social impact mean for me in my career?”

Her response: there is no single answer.  “The answer is the question, ‘Where do you fit into this sector?  What is your vision for social impact and how can you best pursue that?’”

People also often ask her what characteristics and skills are needed to become involved in social impact — but this expert doesn’t believe specific skills are needed. However, people first need to identify their “passion point” – a concept or issue that really drives them.  Then, they should be self-reflective and call on the strengths and resources that they already have.  Rather than asking, “What should I learn and what skills do I need,” people should ask themselves, “Where am I when I feel like I’m at the top of my game?”  People should harness their existing strengths to foster social change, and everyone has a role to play.  As Diana said, “We’re all in this game.”

This segment’s guest took risks to forge her own career path, making her, in my opinion, a trailblazer in the social impact industry.  Her insights are encouraging for anyone, including me, who is contemplating their career opportunities and hopes to make an impact as well.

For members of the Wharton network, an exclusive “Best Of” segment is now available using your Penn ID. Listen in at


Christianne Molina is a Wharton Social Impact Fellow and Penn junior majoring in economics and minoring in consumer psychology. She is a coxswain on the Penn women’s rowing team and passionate about entrepreneurship. She believes in the power of innovation and market-based solutions to drive social change. Christianne is currently studying abroad in the Czech Republic.