A few months ago, in my Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Business and Education: Powerful Social Innovation Partners,” I argued that fostering entrepreneurship education and social innovation skills in schools improves youth employment prospects. My organization, Junior Achievement Young Enterprise (JA-YE) Europe and the University of Warwick recently examined the impact of the 2012 Social Innovation Relay (SIR), a global competition organized in collaboration with HP that challenges secondary school students to develop an innovative business concept that addresses a social need. We found that this collaboration had a significant impact on the development of 21st-century skills (teamwork, problem-solving, and decision-making skills); it also increased proficiency with technology (IT systems, online communication tools) and interest in social entrepreneurship. The results underline the importance of using e-mentoring and technology to improve the employability and entrepreneurial potential of young people.

Today’s job market is more competitive than ever, and employers expect high levels of entrepreneurial, as well as information and communication technology (ICT), skills from the next generation of employees. Unfortunately, many students do not have the opportunity to learn and develop in these areas, leaving them to struggle upon graduation. In fact, the European Commission estimates that less than 5 percent of young people in Europe participate in entrepreneurship education in school. Elsewhere in the world, this percentage is even lower.

In response, JA-YE Europe worked with the HP Sustainability and Social Innovation group to create the SIR program, with the aim of building competencies and interest in entrepreneurship and social innovation while cultivating critical 21st century skills. To achieve greater reach and impact, we integrated technology into the project design—a first for JA-YE, which has traditionally depended on face-to-face engagement. Now, in the program’s 3rd year, student teams from 19 countries worldwide are creating and developing new business concepts intended to achieve a social or environmental impact. When we surveyed students who participated in the SIR program, we found that:

  • 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they understand what social innovation is
  • 71 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they are more aware of the fact that social and business objectives can be complementary
  • 74 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they learned how to work with others in new ways to address social needs
  • 76 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they developed their ability for creative thinking
  • 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they better understand the importance of ICT in pursuing social and business initiatives
  • The vast majority reported improvements in their communication skills (87 percent), teamwork skills (74 percent), decision-making skills (72 percent), and problem-solving skills (67 percent)

The SIR program: a summary

The SIR presents students with the challenges of social innovation. Students work in teams to develop new strategies and concepts to help meet various social needs and create a positive social impact. Participating students communicate and present their ideas using the latest software and digital technology. More than 22,000 students from 13 countries formed 1,564 teams that registered for last year’s relay. The top 20 teams in each country were paired with HP employees from around the world, who connected with the finalists virtually or face-to-face to help them bring their concepts to life. Thirteen teams competed in the final round of the competition, and their submissions were judged virtually by judges from HP using HP virtual room technology.

E-mentoring improves entrepreneurship education

This effort would not have been possible without the active engagement of the HP volunteers who were trained to serve as e-mentors. According to student survey respondents, mentors had a very positive impact on their learning outcomes. Survey respondents reported that their mentors improved their considerations for social issues (80 percent), and provided real-life examples and stories that they would not have found in books (75 percent). Almost two-thirds reported that their mentor was instrumental in making them consider starting up a social business. Interestingly, those student teams who engaged virtually with their mentor were even more likely to experience positive learning outcomes—a strong testament to the value of e-mentorship.

The results of this public-private collaboration clearly indicate that e-mentoring and the development of IT expertise can improve the employability and entrepreneurship potential of young people. To ensure that the benefits of such programs are recognized, it is time to take action and push for more national initiatives on the ground. The answer is to invest more in tried-and-tested, public-private partnerships that deliver long-term local impact—programs that provide educators with what they need to be successful and increase the number of young people who are prepared for today’s job market. Future generations live in an era of globalization that demands mobility and soft skills. It is critical that these young people develop the skills they need for success.