Young entrepreneurs can solve global problems, says EdgeMakers' founder John Kao. His 'innovation curriculum' taps into generation Z’s creativity and teaches young people how to turn ideas into game-changing actions
Two years ago, a Californian resident raised more than US$100,000 for charity by selling lemonade every day for a year. Vivienne Harr was eight years old at the time. Her one-year initiative has since morphed into a social enterprise, Make a Stand, that gifts five per cent of its revenue to organisations working to eradicate modern-day slavery among children.
Many young people feel a moral imperative to jump in and try to take a stand on issues. They are doing this way ahead of schedule from any generation in history
Vivienne’s story is an example of the twin phenomena – youth and entrepreneurialism –which have the potential to shape a new global outlook, says John Kao, founder of innovator trainers EdgeMakers.
“Many young people feel a moral imperative to jump in and try to take a stand on issues,” says Kao. “[They are doing this] way ahead of schedule from any generation in history.”
His assertion is born out by a study from global marketing firm JWT into the so-called generation Z, those born since 2000. As well as being technologically fluent, the 2012 report found that some 15 per cent of those in the eight-to-12-year-old category already give to charity. Still, the challenges this new generation faces are more complex and seemingly intractable than before, dubbed ‘wicked problems’.
“Conflict, security, wellbeing, the environment, social justice… There’s a buffet of issues out there,” observes Kao. “One of the striking features of the landscape is that the gap between our needs and our capabilities [to deal with them] seems to be growing.
Set up in 2012, EdgeMakers aims to tap into generation Z’s creativity and teach them how to innovate to turn good ideas into game-changing actions
“This is why the notion of reaching out to the rising generation and building their capacity to take action is a smart move on the part of global civil society.”
Kao is taking up the challenge to close that gap through the prism of innovation. Set up in 2012, EdgeMakers aims to tap into generation Z’s creativity and teach them how to innovate to turn good ideas into game-changing actions. It is the first time an innovation curriculum has been developed, says Kao.
It took EdgeMakers 18 months to develop a course including videos and projects to help young people generate new ideas, develop them and learn how to take them to market. The curriculum combines best practice from different disciplines, such as design, business studies and exper-imental psychology. Creativity, entrepreneurial verve and collaboration underpin the curriculum, which Kao anticipates will be taught in high schools or directly through lessons available online.
I can teach someone the foundational skills of being an entrepreneur, so it’s likely they’ll make fewer mistakes. Everyone is creative. But not everyone is Mozart or Steve Jobs
“Innovation is about taking ideas and converting them into value,” says the former Harvard Business School professor. EdgeMakers is just starting out, but Kao is ambitious: he hopes to reach tens of thousands of students this year in Colombia, Brazil, India and the US and several million students globally by 2020.
EdgeMakers is one of many new organisations jumping in on the debate to give a facelift to the education system. Conversely, the skills that are most in demand today, such as leadership and working in teams, are learned during extracurricular activities such as sports clubs, says Kao.
“The function of education traditionally is about ensuring a conformity to social standards,” he says. “If you go to the real world of companies and governments and ask what they need, you don’t typically get the answer ‘We need people who conform and are obedient’. Rather, they say they want people who are flexible, curious, proactive, creative and entrepreneurial – who ask the right questions and get things done.”
Kao says he is often asked whether you can teach innovation or entrepreneurship. He is quick to distinguish between being creative and being talented – being good at being creative.
“I can teach someone the foundational skills of being an entrepreneur, so it’s likely they’ll make fewer mistakes,” he explains, something he did at Harvard for some 14 years. “Everyone is creative. But not everyone is Mozart or Steve Jobs.”