Social Innovators Address UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

posted by GabelliConnect on October 9, 2019.

With just one decade to go for countries around the globe to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), businesses and governments remain committed to the task of working together to create a more sustainable world, free of extreme poverty by 2030.

On Sept. 26th, the Gabelli School hosted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Forum: Meeting the 2030 Agenda, where attendees had the opportunity to listen and engage with academics, public figures, and social innovators who are tackling the SDGs at scale.

This interactive learning opportunity gave students, faculty members, and guests practical steps to integrate social entrepreneurship and social innovation into their career paths, current roles, and in their classrooms.

A commitment to accelerating progress is needed to determine whether the UN goals are met by 2030, and during the forum, a panel of entrepreneurs discussed the theme of social innovation, a key component of the Gabelli School’s mission.

Whether reuniting refugee families, helping homeless, or providing books to children in economically challenged neighborhoods, these business leaders have sought after an opportunity inside the problem. They shared some approaches on how they have been successful amid challenges while finding new ways of solving old social problems.

Recognizing the problem

Recognizing what the problems are was the first takeaway from entrepreneurs and social innovators on the panel. Several SDGs listed on the 2030 agenda recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth (according to the SDG Knowledge platform).

Kyle Zimmer, president, CEO, and co-founder of First Book USA, a nonprofit that aims to remove barriers to quality education for all kids in need, says providing educational resources is vital to alleviating social issues.

“The fundamental social issue is recognizing that quality education is the key to almost every social issue,” said Zimmer. “We recognize that, for kids in need, the lack of books and educational resources in schools was a gigantic barrier to quality education.”

Finding the opportunity in the problem

Seeking the opportunity in a social issue is key to entrepreneurship, according to Rosanne Haggerty, president, and CEO of Community Solutions, an organization that helps communities end homelessness.

“It took many years of testing and learning to realize we have a new social entrepreneurship opportunity,” said Haggerty, whose organization has assisted 232,000 people out of homelessness. “The breakthroughs started happening four years ago. We now have our first 13 communities that have ended chronic homelessness.” ­

Seeing the opportunity and disrupting the market is how First Book USA is working to solve issues related to poverty and education, said Zimmer. The organization’s strong network of over 450,000 educators has given First Book USA massive purchasing power within the publishing industry, allowing them to bring the price of books down drastically.

Disrupting the conventional approach

Solving the problem by disrupting a traditional approach is another key driver for success that social entrepreneurs reflected on when starting their organizations. One innovator shared his experience using leading artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology to empower refugees to take the search for missing loved ones into their own hands.

“We have access to computers, but here we have people that can’t find their next of kin or loved ones,” said David Mikkelsen, co-founder of REFUNITE. “We thought, ‘why don’t we build an amazing online platform for people to find each other?’”

Mikkelsen said most refugees were afraid of filling out personal information like names and phone numbers. Tools that required such information in order for displaced people to search for missing family members were seen as not helpful. That is when he, along with his brother Christopher, decided to put the power of search in the hands of the refugee.

REFUNITE’s Community Leader Network is a chain of more than 5300 tribal community leaders spread across 100 refugee communities worldwide. The organization uses online and offline channels and the power of this community-based peer to peer network to help those searching for missing loved ones use this information to overcome the challenges of finding those family members.

Along with staying positive among setbacks, these valuable approaches to social entrepreneurship are essential to achieving the SDGs. Zimmer, Haggerty, and Mikkelsen may have different missions and work on varied social issues, but they all agree on one thing. They are lucky to work on their passions.

“Who gets to sit back and say, ‘You know what? I think I have an idea,’ and you get to go work and build it,” said Zimmer.