An inventive space for solving social problems

Social innovation can mean different things to different people. For instance, Stanford defines it as “the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress.” At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it also means infusing social innovation programs across campus as the University navigates change and accelerates impact helps guide North Carolina’s growth as a state.

Across UNC-Chapel Hill and within local communities, social work professionals are addressing difficult problems like poverty, racism, environmental degradation and violence. And these are the exact areas where innovative and creative solutions are needed.

One Carolina team on campus that’s working to address these challenges with new solutions is the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SIE) lab. Launched through the Jordan Institute for Families at the UNC School of Social Work, this campus hub for innovation is exploring, promoting and nurturing inventive ways to address social problems. The lab is part of the growing Innovate Carolina network, UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship.

“As a student and professional in the field, social workers feel they have two paths – being in practice or doing administration with nonprofits and mental health agencies,” says Christina Hill-Coillot, social innovation and entrepreneurship program director at the UNC School of Social Work. “But there is a third, new path in social work, a path where social workers can be entrepreneurs and start a business. At the SIE lab, students quickly learn they can explore their ideas and create a shorter path from idea to impact in order to change people’s lives.”

As part of this third path in social work, the SIE lab aims to catalyze and embrace: 

● New business models that embrace business principles to secure positive social as well as environmental and financial returns; 

● Local social movements informed by principles of inclusion, social justice and the practice of direct democracy and self-governance; and

● A citizen-centric model of individual agency, choice and accountability which embraces diversity and our differences to better adapt and thrive.

The lab’s creative space offers a way for students to connect with entrepreneurs in business, law, government, technology and other fields to think creatively and find innovative ways to address some of society’s most pressing problems.

The lab offers a cafe that serves Counter Culture Coffee.

“You can address social problems from many different angles. The SIE lab will benefit social work students at Carolina by exposing them to creative ways to solve challenging problems in our communities,” says Matt Anderson, SIE lab board member and vice president of strategic advancement at the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. “Taking a social entrepreneurship lens to problem solving can lead to innovative solutions to the most entrenched issues we face. Getting students in this mindset is crucial.” 

Often, social entrepreneurs have great ideas, but they lack the tools and guidance needed to bring those ideas to fruition. The lab is already looking at ways to fill this gap:

● Designated areas for working and collaborating.

● A coffee bar sponsored by Counter Culture.

● Two spaces to house UNC startups as well as a space for an entrepreneur-in-residence.

● Two co-working spaces that Carolina students and faculty can reserve. 

● A field placement opportunity for students who are not interested in direct practice and want to get experience connecting and collaborating with others.

● A gallery for artwork, particularly by those with a connection to the UNC School of Social Work.

“The lab serves as a vehicle to disseminate information into the field about what social entrepreneurship means in the social work context. It’s not just about the academic side,” says Anderson. “It’s moving to action, executing and implementing solutions that don’t exist, whether in the lab itself or working with partners in the community to execute on entrepreneurial approaches to solving problems. This doesn’t exist in the social work field right now. This lab will fill a gap in the field.”

The lab is the brainchild of Gary Nelson, lab director and the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy at the UNC School of Social Work. For more than 30 years Nelson has served as an innovator in the field, using his passion for research and knowledge to benefit the people of North Carolina. In support of UNC’s overall vision of making innovation a fundamental pillar, Nelson’s vision was to create a space in the UNC School of Social Work that was dedicated to social innovation and entrepreneurship.

Although Carolina does have other innovation spaces across campus, Hill-Coillot is excited for the opportunity to combine resources and collaborate with those groups. In addition, the SIE lab is partnering with the other health affairs schools on campus, including the UNC School of Dentistry, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, the UNC School of Medicine, UNC School of Nursing and the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

“We see ourselves as a startup and are excited about the opportunity to create a financially sustainable enterprise,” says Hill-Coillot. “The lab is a great way to demonstrate our impact to Carolina students, faculty and staff as well as to our local community and the citizens of North Carolina.”

And the SIE lab is positioned for success with support from its advisory board, composed of UNC social work alumni who have spearheaded innovation and entrepreneurship in their respective agencies and companies. The group recently connected at a planning retreat to brainstorm ideas and ensure the lab’s business plan is on track to meet the its goals, mission and vision.

“As a board and team, we’re working toward the big vision we all identified together as we take on projects and involve the right people to get the work done,” says Hill-Coillot.

The advisory board includes:

● Matt Anderson, vice president of strategic advancement, Children’s Home Society of North Carolina

● Heather Altman, communications director, Carol Woods Retirement Community

● Veronica Creech, director of economic development, City of Raleigh, and the UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work’s first entrepreneur-in-residence

● Mat Despard, research assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis and teaching faculty at UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work

● Ann Oshel, senior vice president community relations director, Alliance Behavioral Health Managed Care Organization

● Tom Reid, co-founder, Carolina Outreach Behavioral Health Organization

● Nora Spencer, founder Hope Renovations

“I think the board has a strong desire to be action-oriented and focused on trying things and maybe succeeding or maybe failing, but always learning from what we do,” says Anderson. “We’ll make adjustments, and we’ll try again.”