A Global University Reimagined
As we embark on the next chapter of cultivating and accelerating a generation of social change leaders, we know that the university we need is not one that currently exists. Instead we are creating a university reimagined to be geographically distributed, deliberately diverse, locally rooted and globally connected, and focused on the character and skills to solve the problems of the 21st century. This is not a university in the conventional sense, it’s not bound by time, space, or location. It’s closer to a movement, freed from traditional constraints and focused on community building.
To create this reimagined global university, we took a critical look at the principles we know to be true about cultivating social leaders. While we do not have a formal name yet for this reimagined university, each principle below is foundational and serves as a guide for building the next chapter of Acumen’s leadership work.
Design Principles for a Reimagined Global University
1. Invest in character, not just skills
Poverty exists because of systemic and structural barriers and, as a result, solving problems of poverty requires a unique combination of skills and character. Leaders need to know both how to build an innovative model and how to mobilize stakeholders around it. They need to know how to create a vision and also how to guide the way forward with a strong moral compass. Hard skills alone are insufficient; a combination of skills and character are required to challenge the status quo of poverty.
Our content is intentionally curated to equip leaders with hard skills and an ethical framework, both of which are necessary.
2. Enable lifelong commitment and learning
People mistakenly believe that a leader emerges from a metaphorical chrysalis, fully formed and forever steadfast. Instead we believe that leadership is a journey that requires constant renewal, and that solving problems of poverty requires a lifelong commitment and lifelong learning. There are no quick fixes to the problems of poverty; leaders must immerse themselves in the issues they’re solving and add skills to their toolkit as they face evolving challenges.
We are designing a platform with knowledge and community at the center that people can reliably come back to at different stages in their journey. Unlike traditional education institutions, our reimagined university will not issue terminal 'degrees' or specify an endpoint for learning. Instead, people will be welcome to return again and again. The curriculum will be open and accessible to all, regardless of when you started on your social change journey.
3. Invest in entrepreneurial leaders, not just entrepreneurs
We believe we need a diverse set of innovators - people who work in government, corporations, and nonprofits who can be intrapreneurs or organization builders, in addition to entrepreneurs. Our approach has always been to select individuals from a broad spectrum of sectors and disciplines.
We have discovered that change agents embedded in the systems they are trying to disrupt, who are values-aligned, can be the greatest nodes of intervention. When leaders are proximate to the problems of poverty, and are able to leverage a global community, they have higher chances of success. It will take all of us working together to shift the systems which keep people in poverty.
Improving government services to fix a system, not bypass it
Alex Paul Menon, India Fellow 2018
Alex is an Indian Administrative Services officer of Chhattisgarh State Cadre. In addition to working in the department of Electronics and IT, Alex leads the Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society, in charge of increasing the adoption of technology to improve governance and the delivery of services to citizens. Alex has received national recognition for initiatives such as the Chhattisgarh Online School Monitoring System, a unique school administration ERP for monitoring attendance and delivery of schemes like mid- day meals and students’ scholarships. To date, Alex has impacted 189,000 students, 8,000 teachers and other non-teaching staff in 2,285 schools across the state.
4. Accompaniment is key. Design for community.
The journey of creating social change is long, lonely, and tough. We curate cohorts of 20, and instill a sense of fellowship because we’ve seen that group-based learning is a powerful tool and fosters a sense of accompaniment. We also invest in group-based learning through +Acumen, and are building an engaged community for our most committed online learners. We seek to create a means for people to truly see one another. A sense that you are because I am. A sense that your problems are my problems. The need for sanctuaries where we can replenish, but with a community that will push us back into the world when we’re ready.
5. Deliberate diversity and access for all
In an increasingly polarized world, we need leaders with the capacity to work across lines of difference including lines of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. If you can’t hold seemingly opposable values in tension in service of a greater purpose, you will never be able to create systemic change.
Our approach doesn’t just make content more easily accessible, we also thoughtfully curate diversity through different learning experiences, creating a unique environment for Fellows to practice crossing traditional lines of difference in a safe and trusted space. We have found that the space to develop the capacity to bridge seemingly opposing values and identities is rare, and essential for leaders of the 21st century.
We also believe a university should be accessible, not just celebrate exclusive acceptance rates. Leadership talent knows no boundaries - not geography, not income, not age, not gender. We shut down the possibility for change when we shut our doors to individuals who cannot attend a program due to distance, costs or other barriers.
Additionally, too often powerful emerging leaders are overlooked because of their lack of connections. Or they are caught recreating the wheel as they lack the networks that can give them the mentorship they need. The Global University will invest in the capacity of local leaders and connect groups online with the networks and platforms they need to accelerate their journeys.
6. Knowledge will come from all of us, not just experts
Our Fellows and students are the best teachers our university could ask for. They are the ones on the cutting edge of social change and can provide the insights needed to empower the generation of change-makers that comes after them.
Fellows and learners are already informing our content and courses. For example, Fellows Hasan Anwer (Pakistan Fellow 2018) and Koushik Yanamandram’s (India Fellow 2016) work in biomass and biotech respectively and they helped us develop +Acumen’s course on Designing for Environmental Sustainability. Their insights from their organizations, EnMass Energy and Sistema.bio, show us how to promote a circular economy, to conserve biodiversity, and meaningfully change behavior. Read more about Hasan and Koushik on +Acumen’s website.
7. Learning happens “IRL” (in real life)
No plan fully survives contact with reality, and values are only relevant if we put them into action. We push our Fellows and coursetakers to work on real world problems and solutions. In our Fellows Program, we use the cohort experience and space as a lab to teach concepts. Specifically, we use case in point1 and the cohort as teaching tools to solve real-time problems. In +Acumen, our courses are project- and team-based. Learners are often asked to bring a problem they are currently wrestling with to the course. The activities within our courses allow learners to:
- Participate in learning that tolerates errors
- Hold hypotheses lightly and seek feedback
- Develop can-do attitudes that support adapting and innovating—now and in the future
Social change leaders equipped with these mindsets will be able to respond to the world’s increasingly complex problems and drive systems change.
When agrarian resource rich Indonesia imports $2.7 billion annually we have a problem
Irvan Kolonos used to wonder, “Why is Indonesia, a country rich in agrarian resources, spending over $2.7 billion annually to import basic food staples when these could be easily provided by local farmers who are struggling to make ends meet?”
In 2013, he started Vasham to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Indonesia. Vasham is a social enterprise that leverages a closed-loop business model to provide Indonesian smallholder farmers with the financing, expertise, and income security they need to achieve significantly better standards of living. Irvan and his team have taken 14 +Acumen courses since launching their enterprise. “All of the courses were helpful in providing us structure for how to move forward. My absolute favorite was Scaling Smart. Lean Data was also great as it helped us develop a strategy for how Vasham can collect and use data to measure impact, given our unique business model,” says Irvan.
Relying on what they had learned in the human-centered design course, the Vasham team also traveled to Sumatra and Java, living with farmers to learn first-hand about their challenges. “We decided to go down to the villages and meet with the farmers. We met their families and stayed in their homes. This was a pivotal moment for us, as we came to grips with the complexity of Indonesian farming.”
Vasham is now a thriving organization of 220 people. It has successfully partnered with over 8,000 corn farmers, providing $4 million worth of collateral free loans, crop price protection, access to good seed and pesticides, ongoing training and technical support needed to maximize crop yield. In 2015, Irvan was recognized as EY Indonesia’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year. He is one of a growing number of Indonesian philanthropists who are leveraging family resources and their own experiences to improve the economic prosperity of their homeland.
The Global University
We know that democratizing access to learning is critical in order to push the needle on poverty alleviation. We also believe in empowering a learner to know themselves and their learning edges. This is why the Global University is a dynamic, open-loop learning experience where learners determine their learning journey based on their needs at any given point in time.
Learning experiences include free bite-sized social innovation case studies which provide insight into how change is occurring across the globe. We will continue to offer free and low-cost online courses which allow for self-guided deep dives into leadership and hard skills. And we will continue to offer (and grow) the Fellows Programs to more leaders, providing immersive leadership development at the local level. Additionally, we create intensive global and online cohort-based hard skills development programs, such as the Nonprofit Earned Income Accelerator, which offer opportunities to leaders and their teams to tackle complex organizational challenges.
Imagine a dynamic, open loop2 learning experience for social innovators around the globe. Imagine multiple entry points that allow a learning journey personalized and tailored to a learners needs at different points in time. A university that allows for self-guided deep dives into leadership and hard skills, local immersive leadership development, global and virtual cohort-based skills development, and ultimately a curated global community of practice for the leaders of social innovation. A community of 10,000 leaders with the potential to impact millions.
1Every moment is a teachable moment. Case in point is the active practice of an experienced facilitator to identify teachable instances in the moment and use it to teach a concept or idea.
2Based on Stanford University’s Open Loop University