The Role of Youth in Driving Social Innovation

Posted on September 17, 2010 by 2 Comments

Last night I attended a conversation with Rob Salkowtiz, the author of “Young World Rising.” His book explores how youth, technology and entrepreneurship are changing the world. This event was hosted by the Young Professional International Network through the World Affairs Council. Rob’s book goes deep in exploring how around the world, young people are now armed with unprecedented access to technology, the internet, and social networks and through this access are finding innovative and cost-effective solutions to solve some of the world’s largest challenges.

Rob made an astute point, while well known to most, is a good reminder: today’s children are born digital. This immediately got me thinking about my young nephews who knew how to use high tech remotes to turn cartoons on when they were barely three years old and how easy they are able to navigate their computers in the back of their minivan on summer road trips. Kids today are surrounded by technology and social media and given this, learn about global issues faster than we did growing up and can create relationships and solutions faster because of this.

Rob highlighted several compelling examples of young social entrepreneurs from around the world. Two examples that really jumped out for me were:

Suhas Gopinath, CEO & President, Globals Inc.: Born in 1986, Suhas is one of the world’s youngest CEOs. He resides in Bangalore, India and received the 2008-2009 Young Global Leader Award from the World Economic Forum. Suhas was passionate about entrepreneurship and to his mother’s dismay, spent hours at the neighborhood cybercafe instead of studying for his school exams. Little did his mother know that Suhas was getting certified as a web developer. From that cybercafe, at the age of 14, Suhas set up Globals Inc. in San Jose, California because Indian laws did not allow him to set up a company as a minor.  Suhas took an interesting new business approach: he emailed dozens of small and medium sized manufacturing companies asking for links to their websites for the products they sold. These companies often did not have websites since they were lean and had no experience in web development; the companies would ask if they could snail mail a catalog instead or better yet, visit Suhas in person in India. Suhas would promptly respond that having a website was a bare essential for procurement of the product and that the company was no longer eligible for the bid; he would also conclude the emails saying, “By the way, I know this very affordable web development company you should check out, Globals Inc.” Globals Inc is now a $120 million company that provides web, e-commerce and mobile solutions to the Fortune 500.

Ashifi Gogo and Bright Simons, MPedigree:  Did you know that 30 percent of medicines in Africa are counterfeit? Given this, consumers do not trust medicines or the pharmaceutical industry, which as you can imagine, dramatically impacts the public health situation in the continent. Ashifi Gogo, a native of Ghana who studied engineering and innovation at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering worked with Bright Simons, an Ashoka fellow also from Ghana, to create a nonprofit to fight the counterfeit drug issue, which they call mPedigree. As writer Suzie Boss reports, “the program combines mobile phones, scratch-off drug labels and text messaging into a simple, effective way for consumers in places like Accra to find out if the medicines they purchase are the real deal or counterfeit.” Here’s how the program works: mPedigree provides pharmaceutical manufacturers with specially coded labels, which are affixed to individually packaged medicines. At the drugstore counter, the purchaser scratches off a label to reveal a unique code, which he or she texts to a four-digit number. An automated service looks up the code in a database. On the spot, the consumer gets a reply message indicating whether the drug is genuine or fake. Now, the counterfeit drug penetration rate in Ghana is in the single digits. That is truly social innovation.

Rob discussed another critical issue to ensuring young social entrepreneurship continues to flourish, IT skills training. Rob shared an interesting comparison on the current demographics between India and China. Right now, there are 1.3 billion people living in China and 1.1 billion living in India. China currently has a larger workforce, approximately 964 million people between the ages of 15-64 while India has 780 million. Given China’s aging population and India’s ever growing younger generation, in 2050 India will have 1.1 billion workers and China will have 870 million. In 2050, India will have an inexhaustible supply of labor; given this and the country’s strong promotion of capitalism and entrepreneurship, India will also become the central hub for idea generation and social innovation. It is for this reason India needs to continue to invest in education, literacy, and IT skills training to ensure that it can be the world’s knowledge business supporter. Personally I am more passionate about seeing India improve basic human development indicators such as reducing the maternal mortality rate, ensuring citizens have access to clear water and steady supplies of electricity. However, I can appreciate the attempts the public and private sector or making to get digital access to children in India. (aside: I would still advocate that solving the basic health and livelihood issues should still be tackled first because what is the point of having a computer if you cannot power it up.)

Rob reminded me of the cycle of innovation and how critical business creation, training, innovation, public-private partnerships and reinvestment back into community are to ensure the work of social entrepreneurs is lasting and impactful. His talk also reminded me that at the end of the day, kids get it. Their simple, untainted views of the world often offer the most easy, nonpolitical solutions to everyday programs. So while my nephews may not be solving the world’s energy crisis while driving to school, does not mean someday soon they won’t.

Know any young social entrepreneurs whose story you want to share?

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