Jazz, Beignets and Social Innovation: the 2016 Ashoka U Exchange

Written by: Scott Preston, MSc Social Business and Microfinance. 

As a student who is fairly new to the concepts of social innovation and social entrepreneurship I jumped at the chance of going to the AshokaU conference in New Orleans. Having started my MSc in Social Business and Microfinance in September of 2015, and studied the theories behind social enterprise I was keen to see how the different ideas and models were implemented in a real life setting, and so I went on as many different site visits as I could at the conference.

I arrived a day before the conference and decided to take a long walk around the city to explore the sights and sounds of the city. It was early in the morning, around 8, but I was surprised at just how quiet the place was. I cut through the financial district, expecting to see workers rushing for their morning coffee before going to the office, but there was hardly anyone around. From there I headed into the warehouse district, which is just a short walk away, and again I was struck by how quiet the place was. It was around 9am at this point but there looked to be very little activity. Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, with 80% of the city finding itself underwater. The recovery work is still going on, and many of the social enterprises that featured at the AshokaU conference where coming from New Orleans, trying to help rebuild, as well as attract new people with fresh innovative ideas on how to rejuvenate the city.

During the AshokaU Exchange I had the opportunity to participate in a packed schedule of site visits to social enterprises across the city, below I’ve highlighted some of the projects currently on-going across the city.

St Martin’s Episcological School – Based on the outskirts of New Orleans, this school aims to promote social enterprise and the idea of social innovation throughout their pupil’s curriculum. They have the ‘Innovation and Design’ programme, which provides students with the tools needed to tackle real life problems. We were told of one programme that involved contacting the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and asking if any of their members would like some help from students, and then getting those businesses in to pitch, to the students! The campus will be upgraded with a new $1.6 million centre that will allow students and teachers to have an area that is focused on promoting social innovation through the curriculum.

Propeller is a social incubator hub based in an area that was extremely badly hit during Katrina. Their office space is an old rim shop, with huge windows where the shutters used to be. They pointed out the height of where the water rose to, and said that after the hurricane the area was mainly abandoned by the government, who were focusing efforts elsewhere. The community rallied, even painting their own road signs when the state abandoned them. This sense of pride in community was one of the strongest aspects of Propeller’s work. Acting as an ‘accelerator’ and an ‘incubator’ for social enterprises, charities and for profit organisations working in the fields of food, water, health and education they provide advice, support and networking opportunities to social enterprises wanting to make positive change in their city.

IDIYA crop

Domenic Giunta, the CEO of IDIYA Makerspace


The IDIYA Makerspace is next door to Propeller, and they provide a workshop with different craft tools for people to come in and use. Domenic Giunta, the CEO made it clear that this was a for profit business, and they operated using a members system similar to that of a gym. Instead of hiring equipment for a limited period of time, users paid a monthly membership fee so they could fully utilise the different products and services that the IDIYA Makerspace could offer, and in turn provide a better product themselves.

The IdeaVillage has been operating in New Orleans since 2000, and so was operating long before Katrina hit. They offer a free service, and their income is generated through grants. Interestingly many of their donors are business who they helped in the past, and these businesses not only give their money but also help to support the IDEAVillage. Based in the downtown district of the city, they also run New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, where competitions and workshops are run to help social entrepreneurs and local business improve the services they provide. The city is still recovering from Katrina, and so promoting enterprise not only brings in much needed income for the city, but the social businesses that are given the help to grow can help to support the state, who were simply overwhelmed in the aftermath.

As a student new to the whole social enterprise field it was interesting to see the difference between the European and U.S style of model social entrepreneurship. Although both deal with issues of state failure, the European model is able to use the state as one of the main funders for providing the social services. In the U.S model, more money comes from private grants and donors. Although this potentially gives them more freedom in terms of what work they carry out, there is much more focus placed on where and how to obtain funding. ‘Cash is King’ is an old phrase, however the social mission element needs to be at the forefront of any social business venture, with this always at the heart of the business.

After 22 hours and many in-flight movies later I was finally back in Glasgow, and I will use some of the ideas and lessons that I learnt at the conference not only in my research, but hopefully in ventures in the years to come.

Thanks to Scott for reporting back on his time with Ashoka U in New Orleans – and best of luck to him going forward with his Masters degree in Social Business and Microfinance at GCU. 

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