Mihai Patru

Mihai is a guest contributor for Ashoka U's Student Changemaker Stories campaign. He is a Senior Policy Fellow at University of California Riverside and Principal of the Caravanserai Project, and a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Walking the Walk Meets Social Entrepreneurship-Speak

This blog is part of Ashoka U’s Student Changemaker Stories: a campaign bringing together diverse student changemaker perspectives to shift the narrative around what it means to be a changemaker and who can be one – on campus and beyond. Each story concludes with a note of gratitude and call-to-action from the author.

A year ago, I was talking to a group of early stage social entrepreneurs about their work and the drive behind their commitment and determination. For many changemakers, the cause they are fighting for is deeply rooted in their own experiences, thus enabling them to find the best solutions to the problems challenging their peers.

This group’s answers were no different, however, I noticed something different in their approach. There were no changemaker buzz-words, no social enterprise-speak. Their language spoke simply about their work and the unique challenges they were facing.

Navigating Terminology Across Social Entrepreneurship

When I started my social entrepreneurship journey during graduate school at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies I became familiar with some patterns I heard across language.

At times this language felt aggressive, combining skillful navigation of resources and networks, and displaying the social entrepreneurship vernacular that those active in the social impact sector often showcase with extreme ease and pride.

When I joined the evaluators’ group for Echoing Green a couple of years ago, I had the privilege to learn about impressive changemakers around the world. Without diminishing the importance and impact of their missions, their ability to master “social impact speak” and talk about themselves, their aspirations and vision has always impressed me.

Reflecting on both of these experiences, I also noticed that people who I considered changemakers in my community did not necessarily think the same, or have the language and community to express and grow their work’s impact.

Enabling Changemaking at University of California Riverside

SEED Lab 2019/2020 cohort meeting with CNN Hero Susan Burton.

During my time at UC Riverside I have been dedicated to building community and shared experiences for social entrepreneurs who have been exposed to very little, or none, of the field’s vernacular.

What we have created is the Social Entrepreneurship Engagement and Development (SEED) Lab out of UCR’s Center for Social Innovation. This initiative is a collaboration of the center, Independent Sector, and Caravanserai Project, a social enterprise I co-founded in grad school.

SEED Lab is designed as a 10-month pre-accelerator for social entrepreneurs. We aim to prioritize the support of social entrepreneurs who, despite their talent, commitment, vision and social impact potential, do not yet have the opportunity to be part of a learning environment, engage with fellow changemakers, learn from mentors or access resources and networks.

Practicing our Changemaking in Community

The SEED Lab 2018/2019 Cohort.

Our team recognizes that SEED Lab participants have been focused on walking the walk for so long. Their work has been the result of their desire to change something and provide better conditions and opportunities for their communities. Many of them have been positively impacting their communities for years.

Despite the measurable accomplishments of many SEED Lab participants, most of them do not think beyond their actual work, and they do not spend time framing it, writing presentations or sitting on panels. Concepts like changemaking, social entrepreneurship, social impact, social innovation, or scaling are hardly part of their vocabularies.

When asking our first SEED Lab cohort to describe themselves in relation to their work, only one of them called herself a social entrepreneur.

The rest of the group, after pausing for a while, described themselves as educators, community organizers, doers, etc. – even “godfather” was on the list!

Increasing our Inclusivity in Changemaking

I have always been a fan of the social entrepreneurship competitions run by Ashoka, Skoll, Echoing Green and other important organizations. They provide an amazing learning experience, great resources, and a phenomenal source of inspiration.

SEED Lab alumni Gabby and Claudia Armenta, co-founders of Circulo Azteca Citlaltonac during a performance.

Yet, I have wondered what happens with those applicants who are not skillful enough writers or charismatic on stage in order to make their achievements and impact on the ground shine and stand out. Many people who are changemakers in their own right are often ignored.

The latter are many of the social entrepreneurs and students I’ve worked with through the SEED Lab and Caravanserai Project.

An abundance of inspiration has come out of our SEED Lab thus far.

“If not me, who else?!” proudly declared Marylou, one of the changemakers attending SEED Lab in 2018. Like many of the people we’ve worked with, it was just a matter of access to resources, sharing information, providing support and boosting her sense of self-confidence for the organization she and Joseph founded to take off.

I encourage us all to support more communities of changemakers who are perhaps out there right now, walking the walk, but not necessarily talking the talk.


Closing Words from Mihai

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