THE BLOG
11/16/2013 01:31 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Making the Impossible Possible: A Global Network of Young Social Innovators Shows Us How It's Done

The other day I was fortunate to be surrounded by a group of 20 CEOs and founders who are using the latest technologies and innovative strategies to change the "business as usual" mentality in their communities. No, I was not in some board room in New York or a corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley. I was in a farming community outside São Paulo, Brazil, where I was meeting with young social entrepreneurs from 18 countries who had founded their own organizations. They were in Brazil to attend an intensive week-long retreat that was offering leadership training as well as invaluable opportunities to network and learn from each other.

I've attended each one of these annual training workshops since our global youth leadership program, YouthActionNet®, was launched more than a decade ago. It's a uniquely inspiring experience for me to hear about the personal journeys of these passionate, innovative young leaders, whom we call our global fellows. I also gain a greater understanding of the very real impact their social change projects are having on people and communities around the world.

One of the highlights of our time in São Paulo was a Town Hall meeting--a campus-wide convocation really--at the Universidade Anhembi Morumbi, where five entrepreneurs spoke to an overflow crowd of students and faculty. Four were 2013 YouthActionNet Fellows, and the fifth was Doug Becker, a serial founder himself. Doug has founded a string of successful businesses and special ventures over the past 30 years, the latest being Laureate International Universities, which now sponsors our global fellows and ten national institutes--including the one in Brazil. All of us enjoyed the dynamic exchange between the five of them--each respecting the other others' achievements, and each wanting to learn from each other.

The class of 2013 is, as always, a remarkable group. Take Andi Putra, age 26. He quit his job at IBM to start a new enterprise that is providing affordable financial services to low-income families in rural Indonesia. Adam Camenzuli, 25, is bringing much-needed solar-powered light to villagers in Tanzania so students can study after dark. To protect the waters surrounding the Philippines, Anna Oposa, 25, is working with a team of five core members and hundreds of volunteers to demand strict enforcement of the country's environmental laws. Seeking to diminish poverty and unemployment in her city of São Paulo, Kellen Ribas, 29, is helping to connect waste picker associations and the business community to bring these marginalized groups into Brazil's formal economy.

When asked what she needs to be an effective leader, Katy Digovich, another 2013 global fellow who works in Botswana to improve the country's health and education systems, answered: "Surrounding yourself with people who think the impossible is possible is critical." That's exactly what we're trying to do in this program. We want to keep building what is becoming one of the world's largest networks of young social innovators so that they can learn from and support each other, collaborate on issues of shared interest, strengthen their own leadership skills, and scale the impact of their work.

We've learned over the last 12 years that these young change makers learn best from their peers. I have seen the excitement in their faces when they find another fellow, probably from the other side of the globe, who is struggling with the same issues, working toward the similar goals, and who has found some new way to address an old problem. So we want to more firmly connect both the current fellows and alumni to each other so they--and their social ventures--can have even greater impact in the years ahead.

We do this in a number of ways, including through private social media groups, and the sharing of compelling articles and TED-X videos. Connections aren't limited to the virtual space. YouthActionNet alumni often seek out opportunities to attend the same conferences, host visiting alumni in their country, or collaborate on new projects together. Through our growing continuing education program, we provide learning opportunities in ways that work for busy CEOs after their official one year fellowship has been completed. Our webinar series offers alumni the opportunity to learn about topics such as partnership-building from experts in the field, but also gives them a chance to be the experts, such as Alex Budak's recent webinar on crowdfunding. Last spring, we connected our global fellows with Georgetown University MBA students in Washington, DC, who worked with them during the semester to provide free consulting services, legal advice, and help to develop business plans.

Today, this global network celebrates, supports, and connects nearly 900 young social innovators in 70-plus countries around the world. And that number is growing every year. There will be 1,500 by the start of 2016. Within just the last few months we've launched two regional leadership training institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa (SET Africa and Innove4Africa), and 16 national institutes are up and running in countries that include Mexico, Turkey, Australia, Nigeria, Spain, and Kyrgyzstan. The young social innovators who are part of this global movement are addressing many different challenges facing their communities. But they are all focused on one central vision: making the impossible possible. It's a compelling vision indeed.