The Collaboratory at Fordham

How can a school create a space focused on experiential learning that is both for students and influenced, and created by students, and where students can develop the right mindset that will enable them to become not only social entrepreneurs but also intrapreneurs. This is what Gabelli Fordham School of Business has been doing, and continues to do during Covid-19, with the Social Innovation Collaboratory. I recently spoke with Sadibou Sylla, Associate Director of the Social Innovation Collaboratory, about this innovative approach. 

What is the Collaboratory?

The Social Innovation Collaboratory (SIC) is the institution entrusted with leading Fordham University’s AshokaU Changemaking Campus Initiative. It serves as the hub and the main point of connection among involved faculty, students, alumni, and administrators, and external partners working together to promote social innovation to achieve social justice, social entrepreneurship, and environmental sustainability. The SIC offers a breadth and depth in curricular and co-curricular programming, which embraces experiential learning. students have the opportunity to learn about social innovation and social entrepreneurship through these four axes:  Frameworks, Practica, Courses, and Events. 

What are the Practica?

Graduate students from any academic program can work alongside undergraduate students through the supervision of distinct faculty as advisors. These students take part in social innovation practica which are action research/applied learning experiences that demonstrate measurable scalable outcomes for students from all schools and degree programs at the university. These opportunities are sparked by students, alumni, or venture partners around sustainability challenges and interests. Offered primarily as zero credit experiences, the topics vary from year to year or sometimes span multiple years. 

What are some of the projects currently underway?

Our students are engaged in 13 experiences, which provides a tremendous opportunity for interdisciplinary, experiential learning outside the classroom. These aim to contribute to the development, of New York City and push for a more diverse and inclusive community. One current project involves building partnerships with businesses across the Bronx. Historically, financial exclusion is an issue that has unfairly affected residents of minority-majority communities like the Bronx. We have assembled a cohort of passionate, diverse, and qualified students from Fordham University to offer cost-free consulting services for any local Bronx businesses interested in partnering with our team. 

Another project involves working with American Resilience Project, a non-profit organization dedicated solely to telling the stories of America’s most significant environmental and national security challenges through documentaries. SIC has been working with this project to build a national network of academic institutions using its films, and convening events around the issues featured in the films. Another group is currently looking at raising Fordham’s climate consciousness.

What other initiatives does the SIC organize?

The SIC sponsors courses and competitions around societal issues for graduate and undergraduate students to partake. This year, students will have a chance to participate in the Total Impact Portfolio Challenge (TIPC) to build portfolios across asset classes while integrating ESG in every investment/manager decision. Another course offered through the SIC is Leading & Investing in Change. This course is designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge to influence and lead social impact in business and impact contexts. We also organize events, trips and career resources. 

The SIC also helps faculty and staff grow their expertise in changemaker education through training, grant support, and the adoption of curricular and co-curricular programming. The Fordham Social Innovation Research Fellow and Intern Program is an initiative designed to promote university-wide social innovation research, develop faculty-student research collaborations, and facilitate internal and external research partnerships in social innovation. 

How are students engaged in the Collaboratory (apart from being on the receiving end)? 

Many of our project are driven by the students themselves or are significantly influenced by students. For example, SIC’s System Thinking team launched a project to investigate Fordham’s institutional and community resiliency during COVID-19. Fordham Sustainable Fashion team is working with the COVID-19 Task Force on the Upcycle x Mask-on Challenge which will allow students to learn to make their own masks out of old clothes or fabric. Another project currently underway is the development of an app that will become a hub for all of the current and figure projects and gatherings involved with topics to aid in social innovation. It will be created as a web application to allow Fordham members to view Collaboratory opportunities on multiple devices. 

How do you measure impact? 

The SIC embraces rapid learning and feedback loops when creating new initiatives, improving or creating new curricular and co-curricular programming, measuring impact, and tracking student learning outcomes. Impact measurement is a priority for the institution. However, given the lack of reliable and rigorous quantitative data, our ability to effectively measure whether our students meet these expected learning goals is presently one of the main challenges we are currently facing as an institution. 

How is your work changing given current situation in the US? For the better?

The Collaboratory, which usually revolves around in-person student collaboration and events, was one of the few units in Fordham which positively responded to the effect of COVID-19. While many student activities stopped meeting, the Collaboratory became even more active during the pandemic. We have continued to work on many of our projects and started new ones. For example, we are currently working on a global changemaker experience to offset study abroad programs’ temporary suspension. Our students have been working on with one of the SIC global partners called SEED Academy on a project whose goal is to unlock economic opportunities by engaging the African diaspora as investors fostering entrepreneurship among African youths.

Any advice for other schools looking to do something similar?

First, strong senior leadership and change leaders with the vision to embed social innovation and change making across the institution is paramount. Without the indispensable political will from the leadership, it will be tough to raise the necessary resources to launch these initiatives.  Second, you need an institutional culture and operations that show the institution’s social and environmental consciousness and commitment to social innovation and change making. At the core of this culture, a socially conscious and engaged student body is a must. 

What’s next? 

Our objective is to institutionalize the Collaboratory and build its capacity and reputation to become the focal point and owner of all the conversation around social innovation and sustainability. It will be necessary to partner with all the nine schools of Fordham University and beyond. The Gabelli School of Business has primarily supported the Collaboratory. If this institution is to serve the whole University, it must receive funding from each school. This means that uncertainty around funding in the post-COVID-19 crisis is a threat to the realization of the goals established for the Collaboratory.

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