The University at Buffalo Helps Create Conversation Around Social Innovation

Business and social sector leaders can become social innovators

By Shannon Traphagen

Many of us have gone through an experience in our working lives when we realize that we’d like to do more to help create social change, have impact in our community, or just help those around us. The University at Buffalo’s (UB) School of Management, in collaboration with the School of Social Work, and Blackstone LaunchPad are helping businesses and organizations change the way business and goodness intersect.

I had the privilege of attending a unique one day event at Buffalo Riverworks, called Leading Innovation in the Social Sector. The event saw businesses, entrepreneurs, and the nonprofit sector come together to start a conversation on creating lasting impact, and social innovation in our local communities and around the world.

“The hope is to inspire and cultivate ideas to do well by doing good, make connections, help drive social innovation, learn best practices, and meet nonprofits that are leading the way,” said Molly Anderson, Executive Director for UB’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness at UB School of Management.

What is social innovation?

According to Paul Tesluk, Dean of the UB School of Management, it’s identifying fresh and novel approaches that bring together both business and social concepts that help integrate private, public, and nonprofit sectors to create economic and societal value.

“It’s finding a way to impact economic and societal value that lasts. That’s a tremendously powerful concept, and has great potential here in Western New York,” said Tesluk in his opening speech.

Tesluk, along with Nancy Smyth, Dean for the UB School of Social Work, proved, quite elegantly, that it’s possible to take two different styles of training and combine them to generate and empower societal change. Smyth and Tesluk showcased that leaders in very different fields of study can change the definition for what it means to foster social innovation. Both departments have started working with each other to help provide their students with a broader sense of vision, problem solving strategies, and mutually beneficial partnerships that can elevate a concept from the development stage to the implementation stage.

One of the nonprofits that spoke at the event, BAK USA, is a perfect example of a business leading the way in social innovation. Located here in Buffalo NY, founders J.P. and Ulla Bak moved to Haiti to help build houses after it was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. As the homes were built, the Baks looked around and realized the community residents needed someplace to work — to make a living, and opened a production plant, called SurTab. It gave locals the opportunity to work, assembling tens of thousands of tablets that were then sold in impoverished African countries. Realizing the impact their company could have, they sold SurTab to their Haitian partners and created BAK USA. It was the Start Up NY program that brought the Baks to Buffalo.

“Our company is a social enterprise, a grass roots organization with global reach that builds mobile computers. We partner with local agencies and industry leaders to build computers, empower people, and change the world. Our dream is to make mobile technologies accessible to every human being on earth,” said BAK USA’s co-founder J.P.

The afternoon’s keynote speech came from best- selling author Seth Godin. A successful entrepreneur, writer, and public speaker, Godin has helped thousands of businesses and individuals by discussing ways in which ideas spread — through marketing, leadership and most of all, changing everything. Having had both successful and unsuccessful business ventures, Godin empowers each of us to figure out what is important in the work we do, admit when something isn’t working, and then find a way to create that social change and empower others.

“Oprah Winfrey doesn’t know who I am — that’s ok. I don’t need to create change on a large scale, as long as I’m impacting and creating change in my community around me,” said Godin.

Afternoon learning tracks gave attendees the opportunity to break into small groups and listen to global and local leaders talk about how they are creating social change. Prince Oduro, the Executive Director for African Rights Initiative International; Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper; and Howard Hitzel, President of Lake Shore Behavioral Health were just a few of the learning track presenters.

By building collaborations and partnerships outside of the scope of ones “work” comfort zone, I learned that we can truly impact social change and help make our communities, and the world better just by starting a conversation.

UB’s Center for Leadership is making it their mission to build on a foundation of problem-focused organizational and economic engagement. To learn more, or register for an upcoming event or conference, visit http://mgt.buffalo.edu