Late last year, the Global Fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria approached the International School of Geneva (Ecolint) with the possibility of engaging students in developing more effective means of reaching out to young people for evaluating and solving world issues. The challenge? To come up with creative, new ideas, such as how to better market RED, a world-wide initiative to end HIV/AIDS in Africa involving iconic corporate brands, on Facebook and Twitter.

Together with the UK-based organization, Entrepreneurs in Action, the organizers created a “Classroom to Boardroom” project with 32 students, who researched, discussed and developed more imaginative social media initiatives, such as involving world-renowned sports stars or key international events. The students, for example, came up with a Twitter campaign to promote awareness through basketball player Magic Johnson with the slogan “you take the shot, we change the score”. Every time the ball goes through the hoop, money is raised. The proposed initiatives, which were presented to the Global Fund’s Executive Board, were so imaginative that the Geneva-based organization is taking them on.

Bearing such opportunities in mind, what should students be learning for the 21st century? We know the benefits of education – human potential, societal wellbeing, collective prosperity – but the road ahead is also caught up in uncertainties ranging from financial instability and religious intolerance to political partisanship, climate change, and technological disruptions. For such challenges, our young people are not properly prepared. School curriculums continue to reflect the late 1800s instead of today`s or tomorrow’s world. In the age of exponential technologies, we are now in a race that education must not lose. Syllabuses are evolving, slowly, but our students are literally begging for relevance.

Imagine a deeper learning for engagement that seeks to harness inter-disciplinarity, such as coding, robotics or entrepreneurship, by stimulating inner creativity and more critical thinking. A sort of collaboratory with proto-typing for innovation coupled with character-building for empathy, curiosity, courage, resilience and ethical leadership. This should aim to leverage the entire self, whether the head or heart, for a more progressive 21st Century education. Such approaches would improve our knowledge skills but also the means for engaging with key global players to solve societal crises. What we need to encourage is a mastery for embracing a relevance with a greater purpose.

A recent World Economic Forum report, The Future of Jobs, predicts rising demand for skill sets not today considered crucial. It stresses the need to help children become the new generation of global problem solvers. These should be people who can innovate as technologists, think as entrepreneurs and act as social change agents. They need to develop social skills, such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and the ability to teach others. They will then be in “higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. In essence, technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills,” the report argues.

According to a survey of millennials conducted by Deloitte (2016), 50 per cent of young people want to work for a business with ethical practices and 60 per cent choose their workplace based on its purpose. Research indicates that for 55 per cent of the current four million US students who graduated in 2016, consider social causes to be an important factor in deciding where to work. This strong interest for social good has led to an explosion of social entrepreneurship university programmes around the world. There are now 148 centres across 350 countries.

Ashoka University, for example, promotes social innovation in higher education by developing a global network of students, faculty and community leaders working to advance the field. Over the past few years alone, it has expanded to 30 university campuses. Harvard, Stanford, London Business School have all integrated SEIs programmes with global impact. Social entrepreneurship is not a passing trend. It poses all educational institutions with the challenge: how effectively are we preparing our students for global citizenship?

The recent UN Compact Conference Making Global Goals our local business (SEE ARTICLE) at the headquarters of Swiss Post in Bern represented a call to arms to embed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a business corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. Taking some of our students prompted us to give more urgent consideration of ways to engage with SDGs. Dr Katrin Muff, acting Dean at Lausanne Business School, also challenged them to lead “a socially entrepreneurial agenda” across the school.

Our own Strategic Planning Group is now in the process of considering this agenda with the idea of developing an appropriately relevant framework. This will build upon the rich learning principles of the International Baccalaureate (IB) for promoting more fulfilled individuals, sustainable societies and productive economies to meet the challenges of the 4th Industrial era. There is a very compelling case for introducing social entrepreneurship as a core element in all places of education.

So how can promoting enterprise learning benefit students? First, it can nurture risk tolerance, drive, vision, flexibility and open-mindedness. In addition, it can offer practical skills for financial literacy, including better knowledge of micro-finance, impact investing, basic income and social dividend as well as the impact of technology on the 21st century workplace. Second, it can increase student awareness of local and global initiatives. This will enable young people to better grasp the complexity of this new world but also to empathise and initiate actions to address inequality, sustainability and development from a more global perspective.

Start Something that Matters is an initiative that seeks to engage with the youngsters` entrepreneurial spirit (curious to Start {up} Something) aligned to an ethical and sustainable purpose (that Matters). The overall aim is to build upon the compelling body of work that Ecolint has already developed in recent years around peace education and empathy, curriculum innovation and technology augmentation. Enterprise capability is not only the ability to be innovative or to take risks and to manage them, but also to adopt a can-do attitude and the drive to make ideas happen. The idea is to foster a climate whereby students and staff are confident and enthusiastic to `Start Up` initiatives with educational, moral or social purpose for good.

At Ecolint’s La Châtaigneraie campus, we are fostering a socially entrepreneurial mind-set that aims to encourage our students to work collaboratively on projects with local and global engagement. These are integrated within our character development programme (Years 7-11) with an emphasis on the UN Global Goals. Initiating social businesses inspired by Year 12 Enterprise Ambassadors, alumni from Classroom to Boardroom with Global Fund 6-9 June 2016, empowers younger students to think big, take risks and become ethical change-makers. Such innovation and co-creative opportunities are designed to inspire students to realise talent, think outside the box and build capacity through collaboration. They are also in addition to the Strategic, Resilient and Challenge-orientated enrichment activities (STRETCH) already offered by the school.

Back in 2013, I was proud to be recognised for encouraging such learning in UK schools with the Queen`s Award for Enterprise Promotion. Stimulating big-picture thinking and curiosity can inspire all learners in a relevant and contextualised curriculum. Educational success is no longer mainly about passing on or developing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying this to new or difficult situations. Such forms of creativity and critical thinking, including the capacity to recognize the potential of new technologies, will foster the qualities that can help young people live and work together. These are all compelling fundamentals for young leaders of tomorrow.


Ian Smith has been a teacher of Economics and Business Management in the state, independent and international sector for over 20 years. As Vice Principal at Surbiton High School in the UK, he was responsible for pupil care, character development and an entrepreneurial mindset in teaching and learning. Since 2015, Ian has been working at the International School Geneva, representing the Princess Diana Award as an ambassador and engaging with other socially entrepreneurial organizations such as the WE movement, Wildhearts, Entrepreneurs in Action and Wings of Hope to empower young people. Ian has an MBA in educational leadership. 

See Muhammad Yunus: Building a social business; the new kind of capitalism that serves humanity`s most pressing needs (2014)

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