In the past few years, there has been an exponential increase in social entrepreneurship classes at universities. In most of these classes, professors teach students how to create business plans for social ventures. And many of these courses are excellent.

But what if we went beyond this? What if we taught the key mindsets and skill sets that help make successful social entrepreneurs?

For the past six years, the Transformative Action Institute (TAI) has been promoting a curriculum that teaches these skills. From in-depth studies of social innovators, we have identified seven important competencies that are essential for success:

1. Leadership. These people take initiative and action to solve problems (rather than complaining about what’s wrong).

2. Optimism. These people are confident that they can achieve a bold vision, even when many other people doubt them. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy and a belief that they have control to change their circumstances.

3. Grit. This is a combination of perseverance, passion, and hard work—the relentless drive to achieve goals, complete commitment to achieving their task.

4. Resilience in the face of adversities, obstacles, challenges, and failures. When things fall apart, these people rise to the occasion. They thrive in the most ferocious storms. They see failures as valuable feedback.

5. Creativity and innovation. These people see new possibilities and think in unconventional ways. They see connections and patterns where few other people would imagine.

6. Empathy. These people are able to put themselves in the shoes of others, and imagine perspectives other than their own; this is one of the most valuable qualities for understanding the needs of others whom they serve.

7. Emotional and social intelligence. These people are excellent at connecting with others and building strong relationships.

The important thing to note here is that each one of these qualities is something that people can develop with practice. There is a tremendous amount of scientific evidence that people can grow in each of these capacities. They can see statistically significant progress.

For a long time, people thought that these traits were fixed. You either had them or you didn’t. There were some people who were born creative, and others who would never have an ounce of creative inspiration. There were some people who were naturally optimistic, and others who just were naturally pessimistic. People couldn’t change.

But now we know that people can develop these competencies. Just in the same way that college students can learn a foreign language at age 20, so too can they learn the key skills for being great social innovators—becoming proficient, or even “fluent,” in these core competencies.

First piloted at UCLA in 2005, this course has now been taught at more than 30 universities across the world including Yale, Princeton, Cornell, NYU, Johns Hopkins, and UC Berkeley. Both Echoing Green and Ashoka U have recognized the organization as an innovator in social entrepreneurship education. In surveys, more than 90 percent of students said this class changed their lives.

However, the financial downturn has made it more difficult to innovate on campus. Faculty and administrators face an uphill battle because of budget woes. How can you offer new course ideas when universities are cutting deep into traditional course offerings, and hiring fewer and fewer faculty? TAI’s module for social entrepreneurship is adaptable and cost-effective for universities because practicing social entrepreneurs from the local community can be brought in to teach as adjuncts. The TAI curriculum gives instructors a teaching manual to draw from, cutting down their course preparation time, while students benefit from an exchange with real-life social entrepreneurs who can share their experiences.

For instructors who have adapted TAI’s curriculum, one of the keys to its success is its flexibility. This is not an all-or-nothing approach. Great success has come from incorporating a small section into an existing course, circumventing the need for new course approval, which can be a lengthy and involved process. Grace Davie, professor at Queen’s College, CUNY, adapted elements of the curriculum into her existing African history course. Davie casts figures in African history as social entrepreneurs: visionaries and innovators who have fought for change in their societies. She uses the concept of social entrepreneurship and a portfolio assignment from the curriculum to help each student identify the changes they want to make in the world.

Let me finish by talking about this portfolio assignment, because it’s one of the keys to the success of this course. College students often have passion and energy and a desire to make a difference, but they frequently have no idea what they want to choose as a major, let alone what “big, hairy, audacious goals” they have for changing the world. We have students spend at least five weeks engaging in a rigorous assessment of their talents, strengths, skills, passions, and personal histories. Many students have reported that this was the most meaningful assignment they have ever had at any educational level. It helps them figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Our goal now is to help spread this curriculum to more than 200 colleges and universities across the world: to help train the next generation of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and problem solvers for the 21st century.

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