Skip to content

Incubating Changemakers: ‘Social innovation ecosystem is in the DNA of this university’

Rebecca Riccio, director of the Social Impact Lab, with students at Northeastern Changemaker Day on Feb. 29, 2016.

After months of rigorous assessments, interviews, site visits, and strategy sessions, Northeastern University has recently joined the Ashoka U Change­maker Campus Network, a consortium of higher education institutions worldwide committed to social innovation education.

Ashoka, the largest international network of social entrepreneurs, began offering the prestigious designation in 2008 to leading institutions dedicated to becoming the next global driver of social change by transforming education into a world-changing experience.

“I think the proof of Northeastern’s exceptional model really lies in the students,” Rebecca Kagan, Changemaker Campus associate director, said in a statement. “The students I met were some of the most mature, thoughtful, and engaged that I’ve ever seen. Programs such as co-ops and Dialogues challenge students to be constantly thinking about real-world implications of their studies, which faculty and staff balance with rigorous academics and field-leading research.”

Rebecca Riccio, director of the Social Impact Lab, is one of four “Change Leaders” who have been charged with addressing two opportunities that emerged out of the designation process: The need to identify and foster collaboration among faculty and staff across disciplines who are engaged in social innovation, and illuminating the various pathways students can pursue within the university’s social innovation ecosystem.

“There is no fixed path for a Changemaker Campus to follow,” Riccio said in an interview. “It’s up to us collaboratively to define what we will be as a Changemaker Campus and that involves a lot of listening, relationship-building, and thoughtful consideration about how to leverage the existing assets on campus rather than reinventing the wheel, or creating a need for a lot of new resources.”

The Social Enterprise Institute in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business initiated the Changemaker Campus selection process in 2012. However, the team grew to encompass different perspectives and disciplines across campus. Riccio became a “Change Leader” last year joining Dan Jackson, executive director of the NuLawLab; Sara Minard, executive professor of entrepreneurship and innovation; and Shaya Gregory Poku, program director of the Social Justice Resource Center.

Together, they mobilized a campus-wide representation of the university’s social innovation ecosystem, which highlighted the work of staff, faculty and students over a two-day site visit from Ashoka U last spring. As part of the process, “Change Leaders” also conducted a broad inventory of all work happening on campus in the social innovation space.

“Even knowing how much great work is happening in this arena, I was thrilled to see that the social innovation ecosystem is even broader and deeper than I was aware,” Riccio said. “It truly encompasses all of our colleges and schools in a way that gives any student on this campus the opportunity to learn how to be a changemaker.”

The Social Impact Lab, for example, was launched in 2014 and uses experiential teaching methodologies to help students understand the complex systems from which social problems and their solutions emerge.


Students Vanessa Cohen, left, Martha Durkee-Neuman, center, and Erika Koeniger, Jr., right, work at the Social Impact Lab.

According to Riccio, activities like real-dollar grant making and mapping networks and systems associated with social challenges in neighborhoods surrounding campus give students a deeper insight into complexity.

“We’re incubating changemakers here in our Human Services courses and in the Social Impact Lab,” Riccio said adding that as many as 100 students participate annually in Human Services courses associated with the lab.

Sophomore Martha Durkee-Neuman, a member of the campus’ Sexual Assault Response Campaign, joined the lab in January because she said she was looking for a way to become more involved with social innovation on campus.

“What I really love about the Social Impact Lab is that … we’re encouraged to do our own research about what’s in the news, and we get to bring to the table our energies and passions to balance our ideas with each other,” Durkee-Neuman said while working at the lab. “It’s also a great way to see where Northeastern fits with what’s happening with social innovation.”

Social entrepreneurship initiatives, however, are embedded throughout the campus. Michael Pollastri, interim chair of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Richard Wamai, assistant professor of African American studies, are examining ways to repurpose FDA-approved drugs to treat diseases in low-income countries that might not otherwise receive the research dollars necessary to develop new drugs. The Social Enterprise Institute hosts advanced research and an undergraduate minor in Global Social Enterprise, and Northeastern is the first Changemaker Campus to fully incorporate social innovation into its law school.

“The commitment to the social innovation ecosystem is in the DNA of this university. We are hardwired here to incubate social changemakers,” Riccio said. “I hope this process will just bring that to the surface of people’s awareness more clearly and help us leverage what already exists.”

More Stories

NGOs Awards Announced


Human Services Social Impact-athon for COVID19

Northeastern logo

Northeastern University’s Social Impact Lab names Sam Vaghar as inaugural Global Community Engagement Fellow