“We found that broadening the definition of entrepreneurship in higher education to include social, cultural, commercial, and technological value creation is a powerful and effective way to fulfill the land-grant mission of public universities. Aligning such a wide range of human and intellectual capital, public institutions can form interdisciplinary groups of thinkers and builders in a way that few institutions of the world can. We are excited to continue fulfilling the public service mission of our institution by supporting all students and faculty in creating ventures, nonprofits, products, and programs that change the world.” Noah Isserman, Director of Social Innovation, University of Illinois

Social Innovation at Illinois & iVenture Accelerator – 2016 Awardee

University of Illinois’ social innovation initiative that aspires to holistically develop students into critical leaders in social innovation through a rigorous two-year, three stage curricular and co-curricular pipeline for social venturing.

In the first stage, a semester-long course, students gain understanding of entrepreneurial methods while working in diverse teams to create a venture plan that addresses a significant social challenge. They are supported with funding and advisors from the local United Way and venture capital fund.In the second-stage course, students spend a semester applying entrepreneurial learning modules growing the ventures. Finally, in the third stage, students work full-time in the iVenture Accelerator, an educational accelerator for student startups creating social, cultural, and commercial value. It provides expertise, $10,000 in seed funding, and access to world-class resources. In all three stages, venture teams gain access to funding and experienced advisors.

The entire pipeline is unusually diverse: More than a dozen campus partners support socially entrepreneurial students from 45 different majors and minors over four semesters and a summer – in turn providing them access to foundations, VCs, serial entrepreneurs, and more. The iVenture Accelerator, with over 10 campus units and numerous community partners, brings student innovators around a broadened definition of entrepreneurship – one that acknowledges social, cultural, and environmental value creation, along with the traditional tech and commercial. This broad reach attracted 13 teams from over 24 majors and minors working on nonprofits, healthcare IT, prosthetic limbs, language learning apps, and more. There was also broad student participation in the inaugural cohort: 13 women, 7 teams of female co-founders, and a large segment of underrepresented minorities.



In addition to impressive student accomplishments, the diversity and social purpose of our first cohort is shifting student and institutional culture. More students — and more diverse students — see entrepreneurial action as a way to create meaningful change. In two years, the course pipeline has seen 450+ students and nearly 60 student ventures. (We’ve trained an additional instructor this semester to accommodate student demand.) Students have gone on to win University-, community- and national-level awards and scholarships based on their work.

The pipeline team now coordinates over 100 mentors, advisors, workshop facilitators, and speakers from across the world. These include serial entrepreneurs, Rhodes, Gates, and Soros scholars, and staff at Google, Google.org, Kickstarter, BBC One, IndieGogo, and others. We’ve raised six-figure sums to provide seed funding, stipends, and programming for students. Our campus partners are building more programs together, and have much greater interaction than ever before.

How can people get involved in or replicate your innovation?

There are a several ways in which people can engage with the iVenture Accelerator:

  • Contribute your time and expertise by advising or mentoring an iVenture Accelerator startup.
  • Share information with the iVenture Accelerator staff about resources that might be useful to our startups.

For funders and investors seeking to provide capital to early-stage ventures, contact the iVenture Accelerators staff to determine whether any of our ventures may be a good fit for your philanthropic or investment objectives.

If you’re a higher education innovator looking to replicate this model, the iVenture Accelerator team would be happy to advise.


Contact information

Noah Isserman

Director of Social Innovation; Asst Prof of Business + Social Work



Ryan Singh

Manager of Social Innovation at Illinois


Cordes Innovation Awards

In partnership with Cordes Foundation, Ashoka U seeks to recognize globally relevant teaching, learning, and partnership practices that may be adapted and replicated across the field.