Changemaker U

Should social impact be the basis of higher education? Why the world needs more social innovators—and why traditional higher ed must do more to produce them.
Changemaker U
AFTER ROSHAN PAUL GRADUATED from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he was literally a man on a social mission. For the next eight years, he worked for Ashoka, a global nonprofit supporting social entrepreneurship; while there, he designed and implemented projects such as Ashoka’s Peace Initiative, which worked with social entrepreneurs in countries experiencing conflict. He also met Ashoka colleague Ilaina Rabbat, and together they realized that while Ashoka’s efforts were effecting positive change in the world, the organization could only do so much. They thought higher education institutions could have far more influence—but believed few were doing enough to teach students to make true social impact.

In 2012, the pair launched Amani Institute to fill what they saw as a void in higher education. The curriculum at Amani—based in Nairobi, Kenya—prioritizes immersive, global, and hands-on learning experiences over classroom lectures. (See “The Amani Experience” on page 30.) Recently, the institute opened a new location in São Paulo, Brazil; and this year, it added an MBA in social innovation management in partnership with Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

Amani’s goal: to produce individuals with the essential skills of social innovators. Paul recently talked to BizEd about his goals for Amani, as well as the path he hopes traditional higher education institutions will follow.

You have a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, you self-designed a bachelor’s in international political economy from Davidson College, and you earned a certificate from the Amsterdam School for Creative Leadership. Did you ever consider pursuing an MBA?

I wanted the skills of an MBA, but I didn’t want to work in operations management for a factory or make investment decisions for a big company. I knew early on that my career was going to be in the social sector; by pursuing a public policy degree, I could take MBA-type classes focused on social impact.

Amani now offers an MBA jointly with Lynn University. Why did you call this degree an MBA, rather than a master’s in social innovation management?

Lynn has a business school, not a school of public policy, and it wanted to add a social innovation concentration to its MBA program. So, we’ve made our MBA an extension of our certificate in social innovation management. Students from Lynn or Amani can complete the one-semester certificate program with Amani Institute and then transfer their credits to complete the remaining three semesters of the MBA program with Lynn, on campus or online.

After 9/11, you saw a global need for workers with skills in peace-building and social impact. How did you define these skills?

Before we started Amani, we interviewed CEOs, human resource directors, and entry-level employees across all types of organizations, from small community-based organizations to the U.N., to ask what important skills they thought master’s programs were not providing. The four they identified were leadership, communication, entrepreneurship, and creativity and problem solving.

I imagine that many schools of business and public policy believe they are teaching these skills, but these employers felt as if schools were teaching these concepts from an academic perspective, not a skills-based perspective. That’s why we modeled our program after medical schools and military academies, where degree programs are very practice-oriented and very person-oriented.

Who are your faculty?

Most of our faculty are external—they come to teach for a week or so and then leave. We cover the costs of their travel and visas and we host them, but we don’t pay them very much to teach our classes.
Because they’re not on our staff, we do not have to pay salaries or benefits.

Although we have one or two academics, we target practitioners—CEOs and other senior-level executives—who are at the top of their fields in nonprofits, corporations, or consultancies. We have found that once these individuals get to a certain level of their careers, they see it as their responsibility to give back to the next generation. Many will teach for us pro bono because they believe in what we’re trying to do.

So, your program skips over the academic perspective to get straight to the practitioner point of view.

Exactly. We created our program as a response to what I call the “misallocation of resources” in higher ed. For example, when I was at the Kennedy School, I found that there were content-based—or academic—classes and skills-based classes. I have no quarrel with theoretical academic work at the undergrad level, but in a master’s program that could cost US$60,000 a year, schools need to focus on skills that students can use.

In my program at the Kennedy School, tenured and tenure-track faculty were teaching “theories of international relations” or “advanced macroeconomic policy” to classes of ten or 15 students. Adjunct faculty, on the other hand, were there from industry, for just that semester, to teach skills in negotiation, budgeting, leadership, or communication. They were teaching classes of 120 students. Many students couldn’t get into these classes at all. These are students who had spent $60,000 or gone into debt for their educations—and they were in classes of 120 or unable to get into classes that had value to them.

The classes that the university’s customers were choosing were not the classes that the university was prioritizing. That’s a weird set of priorities to have at the master’s level. That’s why at Amani we have people from industry teach our classes and tell students, “Here’s how I do this.” Sometimes they’ll even say, “Here’s what I learned in business school, and here’s how I would change that to make it practical.”

Who are your students?

They come from all around the world, representing about 40 different countries. They are all ages—our youngest student now is 21, and our oldest is 66. Some of our students grew up in slums, others are refugees. We’ve had people who have been child soldiers, as well as people from Silicon Valley and the suburbs of Paris.

The more diverse our customers, the more personalized our approach is, the better. That’s what we think should be the norm in all of higher education.

Amani Institute co-founders Ilaina Rabbat (second
from right) and Roshan Paul (far right) hold an
outdoor discussion with students.

Do you have a core curriculum, with courses in subjects such as finance or strategy?

We weave subjects such as finance and strategy throughout the curriculum—a class in finance is a class in social impact finance. We don’t imagine our graduates will be finance professionals, but we do imagine that they will be leaders who will need to know how to read a balance sheet and a profit and loss statement. If we had departments at the Amani Institute, they would be leadership, communication, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

Do you use case studies?

We might use “light” case studies—for example, students might offer their own organizations as case studies. Then, they’re working on issues at their own organizations without taking time off work—they’re building finance models, branding strategies, or impact evaluation strategies throughout the program. It’s immensely practical. We try as far as possible not to use abstract case studies common in business schools.
Our experience has shown us that people can change the world."


How did your time at Ashoka inspire you and Ilaina Rabbat to create Amani?

Our experience at Ashoka was transformational for both of us, because it showed us that people can change the world. I have seen hundreds of people do it. But it’s infinitely harder to do than to work in a regular business, so people need training for it. The problem is that universities don’t focus on training for social impact. The social entrepreneurs that Ashoka supports are great role models as changemakers. We want our students at Amani to be like them.

What were the biggest challenges you both faced to launch Amani?

The first was that we opened the school in Kenya, and neither one of us was from Kenya. We were coming to a new country, and we had to learn how things worked. But we both have lived in many different countries, so we were able to adapt relatively quickly.

The second challenge was that we were asking people to spend US$8,000 on our certificate program. That amount is only a fraction of the cost of tuition at many business schools, but if you compare it to the cost of higher education in the countries that many of our students come from, it’s exorbitant. We were asking people without funding behind them to spend that kind of money on a school without a brand name. It was a big ask. We had to be very strategic and intentional in our branding and our communication—we had to convince people that even though we had never done this before, they should give us $8,000 to spend this time with us. We conducted long, personal interviews with applicants to our first class. We have found that if we talk to people before they apply, they are more likely, A, to get in and, B, to accept our invitation to join the program.

Do you offer scholarships?

We do, although I think the term “scholarship” is a fancy way for the education sector to say “a sliding scale.” We ask people to pay what they can afford. However, even if someone is from a marginalized background, we want to them to pay something so that they have some skin in the game. But people who can afford to pay more pay full price, which helps subsidize the people who can pay less.

Why did you choose Kenya for the Amani Institute’s first location?

We wanted to be in an emerging market, so that we could be close to where the problems are and where we could see change happening quickly. Also, because Ilaina comes from Argentina and I come from India, we felt that if we were going to ask our students to show their courage and take risks to build the careers that they wanted, we also should go to a place that was new and unfamiliar to us. We did not want to ask our students to do something that we weren’t willing to do ourselves.

Once we had picked Africa, we wanted to be in a city that is a geographic hub for innovation, and Nairobi is truly one of the social innovation hotspots in the world. Likewise, when we were looking to expand to Latin America, we chose São Paulo for the same reason.

Other than Lynn University, have other traditional higher education institutions asked you about adapting your model?

We are talking to many universities, mostly in the U.S. and Brazil, that know the market is demanding different programs than they typically have been providing. But while there’s a lot of interest in forming partnerships, they often take too long to develop. For example, we might talk to a university about a summer program for their students in 2016, but they want to roll it out in 2017. All we can think is, “Wow, the world is going to be completely different by 2017.” But we want to partner with traditional higher ed as much as we can.

What’s your next big aspiration for Amani?

Now that we’ve proven our model, our biggest aspiration is to scale the impact of what we do. We’re already financially sustainable after just three years—that’s relatively rare for nonprofits. Now that we’re in Africa and Latin America, we want to launch in India in the next one or two years. But we’re exploring ways of scaling our program that won’t mean we necessarily have to grow in size. We think it’s more strategic to work with universities to get this program out to more people.

Now that Amani has been open three years, what are you most proud of?

Strategically, we’re proud that we’ve built a model that is attracting attention. People are asking, “How can we copy that, or how can we do that?” We have been approached by organizations to see if they can franchise what we are doing—the MBA with Lynn University is an indication of that. We have a partnership with the University for Peace, a United Nations university in Costa Rica. And we’re part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, President Barack Obama’s flagship program for Africa. That leadership program has four centers on the continent, including one in Kenya, and its training is broken up into three tracks: a business and entrepreneurship track, a public administration track, and a civil engagement track. We won the bid to deliver the civil engagement track. The other two tracks are run by two American schools—Dartmouth University and Arizona State University.

On a more personal level, we’re proud that our program goes very deep with our students. We’ve had people from Coca-Cola and Google attend our programs, and we’ve had people who teach in slums or who are refugees. Regardless of their backgrounds, they feel that this program is transformational. When someone looks into our eyes and says “Thank you, you changed my life”—that’s the reason we do it.