Dell Social Innovation Challenge Think Tank a Booming Online Success

A dozen or so experts on social innovation and sustainability gathered in Austin, TX, on Tuesday for the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, a yearly program that inspires social entrepreneurship all over the world. For the first time ever, there was a global audience watching along on a live stream and discussing it on Twitter. If you have a few hours free or are just looking for some informative background noise, the live stream links still have access to the entire discussion. But in case you don’t, we’ve decided to reenact it for you as we watched it online and got involved with Twitter. Enjoy.

Suzi Sosa proved to be an excellent moderator in addition to her duties as executive director of the DSIC. Her vast knowledge of all of the panelists' experience helped her to probe the right person at the right time. 

Jeff Chapin, a designer at IDEO, got off the first profound thought of the session. Perhaps it’s not always the founder of the idea who is the bravest. He succinctly made the case that perhaps supporting social innovation is just as important as the innovation itself.

Diana Jue was the winner of last year’s challenge and with good reason. Her project (and now company) Essmart focuses on meeting the distribution and access needs of developing nations, not the innovation needs. She one-ups Chapin — she is both a founder and a follower.

Seth Cohen, Director of Network Initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, was the first person to coin a new word through the discussion. His word “touristpreneur” came to mean someone who travels abroad, feels inspired to make a change, and then acts upon it. He argues that the only way for this to be effective is if you stay abroad and work there. There is no room for armchair touristpreneurs!

Most everyone on Twitter was pretty supportive and treated every word as groundbreaking and profound. Jana Schroeder made the excellent point that maybe sometimes we don’t need to be “touristpreneurs” but can instead make that same change on home soil.

Our next new portmanteau came from Sosa. Combining cooperation and competition, she tried to redefine transparency as the opposite of competition. Only with collaboration and authenticity can we scale our ideas. Joy Stoddard, Development & Outreach Director of Whole Planet (Whole Foods’ microfinance foundation) advocated greater transparency to promote change right up through the first coffee break. 

When things resumed, the topic switched a bit. How do we teach social innovation? When should we teach it? Arguments were made from all sides from across the board, but the consensus was that it must be constant and from great teachers. 

Amidst all of the talk of following your passions and surrounding yourself with those who support them, R. Todd Johnson cut through to make a much more incisive point. Our parents and our educators can teach us to fear failure, but this is a necessary step on the way to success and innovation. The fail-fast/learn-fast motto has never been more applicable.

The Twitter conversation made it all the way to Mexico and beyond. I even noticed some tweets in French. I never would have seen this article if someone a few thousand miles away hadn’t recommended it. 

The topic shifted again before the session closed: Communication is more important now than ever. And not just the ability to communicate broadly  we have that in spades  but the ability to communicate effectively. Leetha Filderman, President of PopTech, argued that “nurturing strong storytelling and communication skills is essential to building students’ social innovation confidence.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

While it’s not a new word it’s certainly a new definition. Johnson here repeats the theme of education but argues for social innovation in the way we educate. 

Ingrid Vanderveldt was on the panel while she tweeted this.

The closing thoughts were about the future of social innovation and what each panelist wishes to see. Marina Kim, co-founder and executive director of Ashoka U, had the most poignant and relevant thoughts. Her wish for “every university in the world to seize opportunities to set students up for social innovation success” rang true for everyone on the panel and all of us watching on our laptops. 

Tonight, the winner of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge will be named and the competition will start anew. Until next year, reflect on how you can improve both your own ability to innovate and how you can help others to do the same. 


Brady Hamed is a sustainability enthusiast and educator currently located in Rochester, NY. He spent the last four years working for a B.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University ('12). After graduating in June, instead of following a career path,… [Read more about Brady Hamed]

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