Friday, April 04, 2008

Got Hope? I Do, in Generation Y

"Beyond these trends and landmark event, I think we’ve yet to see what will define our Generation, a Generation with a profound sense of social responsibility and a Generation who does not accept 'impossible' as a valid word in our dictionary. Yes, We Can." --Andrea Zak, Here's What's Defining Generation Y Now on Brazen Careerist.

Last week I had the pleasure of facilitating a career counseling session for a group of Stanford students who were spending their "alternative spring break" meeting with social entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. By the time I saw them, they had met with staff at MicroPlace, Lenders for Community Development, IDEO, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Draper Richards Foundation, Upwardly Global, 826 Valencia, MAPLight, Taoit, People's Grocery, Whole Foods and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. They'd also had dinner with three Bay Area Ashoka Fellows, and met with Heather McLeod Grant, the co-author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits.

My job was to help them integrate some of their experiences into an action plan of next steps towards figuring out how they wanted to make an impact in the world. One of the things that struck me was that unlike my generation, Gen X, where a room full of "do-gooders" would have all been people majoring in education, sociology and other social sciences, many of these students were majoring or interested in engineering, product design, symbolic systems and business. They wanted to integrate social responsibility into their work, and make a decent living.

During the two-hour session, we did a brainstorming exercise that I learned from Carol Lloyd, author of Creating a Life Worth Living. They made 3 lists: a. issues and fields that interested them, b. qualities of their ideal work environment, and c. skills and tasks they enjoy doing. Then they got into small groups and brainstormed work or projects where items from 2 or 3 of the lists could be combined. They came up with all kinds of creative, innovative ideas like creating a job training program/baseball league for the homeless, writing a socially conscious graphic novel, starting an organization that helps nonprofits measure their impact, and designing workplaces that facilitate collaboration.

The next part of the exercise was to figure out what was stopping them from making their ideas real. Any places where they got stuck were "black holes." The group took a few people's "black holes" and brainstormed possible solutions for them. The only rules were that there are no bad ideas and the person with the black hole couldn't say no to any of the group's suggestions. Again, I was amazed by the quantity and quality of their ideas.

A lot of folks in the nonprofit sector are talking about the nonprofit leadership gap. As Rosetta Thurman reports in her post, Closing the Nonprofit Leadership Gap: What Have You Done Lately?:

"Is this not cause for more alarm? The nonprofit sector is on the verge of experiencing what many are calling a 'leadership deficit.' To cite a recent Bridgespan Group report, by 2016 the sector will need to attract a whopping 640,000 new senior executives to step up and take charge of the nonprofit landscape, which is 2.4 times the number currently employed."

I don't feel worried. When I see the good hearts and ideas of students like these, or work with graduates of Green MBA programs, or hear 23-year-old, 2007 Brower Youth Award winner, Jon Warnow talk about how he and five friends created the Step It Up campaign after asking themselves the question, "What does the climate movement look like?" I'm not worried.

Whether they work for nonprofits, become social entrepreneurs, run socially responsible businesses, or are simply "extra-organizational" activists in their daily lives, I have no doubt that the next generation will think outside the boxes that the generations before them have built, and make the world a better place.

For more information about Stanford's Social Entrepreneurship in the Bay Area spring break, check out their wiki and blog.

Note: For those of you, like me, who don't know who is Gen X and who is Gen Y, according to a USA TODAY article, Generation Y: They've Arrived at Work with a New Attitude, Generation X was born roughly between 1965-1976 and Generation Y was born between 1977-2002.

Photo: The fabu students who participated in the Social Entrepreneurship in the Bay Area spring break (and me)


  1. Thanks, Britt, for sharing your incredible experience! I wish I could have been there to listen and participate - but it also makes me very excited to remember that as a Gen Yer, I actively create situations for these conversations and brainstorms with my peers at least once a week in one way or another. We'll make the world great, just you watch! :)

  2. Great post. I agree that Gen Y has the power to change the world and is going about it a bit different than previous generations. Thanks for showcasing this.

  3. Hi Sam and Amy, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. If you have any Gen Y'ers with Big Visions who you think I should interview for the Big Vision Podcast, let me know:


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