No boundaries, countless ideas

By Matthew Biddle

Photo of light bulbs

Student learning is central to the social innovation initiative driven by the School of Management and School of Social Work. 

Through a series of workshops and a newly launched, co-taught course, action-oriented students from both disciplines are exposed to challenges facing society, learn about tools and processes that foster or hinder innovation, and put that knowledge to practice.

To start, the schools, along with the Blackstone LaunchPad at UB, offered a series of half-day workshops. Undergraduate and graduate students from across campus received an overview of the lean startup methodology and mission-driven business models, and then completed an exercise, modeled after Google sprints, to generate and present ideas for local nonprofits. In the most recent workshop, the students worked with entrepreneurs from the community and School of Management, as well as staff from several nonprofits focused on affordable housing, food insecurity, school truancy or legal aid.

“There was this explosion of ideas,” says Robert Neubert, clinical assistant professor of operations management and strategy. “The entrepreneur stripped away the boundaries, the nonprofit leader gave context on the issue their organization faces and our students brainstormed new solutions.”

The workshops demonstrated the need for a semester-long course that began this spring. Neubert and Kathleen Kost, associate professor in the School of Social Work, led the “Social Sector Innovation” class, giving their students a comprehensive introduction to the social sector, the process of innovation and how to measure social impact, as well as real-life examples of organizations using social innovation to improve communities nationwide. For their final projects, students teamed up to propose an economically viable innovation for a social issue.

“We’re not just scratching the surface on social innovation,” Neubert says. “We’re really digging in, so students understand it and can be effective in whatever they’re passionate about when they leave UB.”