The overlooked benefits of service-learning for future leaders of the VUCA world

“A startup is a human institution designed to create something new under the conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

Eric Reis

A startup is a perfect opportunity to rehearse survival skills for a VUCA world. 

The definition of a startup captures the reasons inside it: a systemic response (institution) which is inherently complex, and a process of creating it that’s filled with uncertainty, creativity and taking action. A person’s responses constituting a systemic solution to a creative problem under conditions of uncertainty makes that person an entrepreneur.

There’s a vehicle for entrepreneurship that lives deep inside our schools. That vehicle is the service-learning program.

What can our communities learn through entrepreneurship in our service-learning programs?

Reframing service-learning as entrepreneurship helps both teachers and students to identify and rehearse the mindset of entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs have behaviors that set them apart from unsuccessful ones. Essentially, thinking like an entrepreneur takes a person on a transformational process that has the potential to last a lifetime. In that process, the entrepreneurial mindset is one that searches for vision, finds alternative perspectives, leads from a stance of service, cultivates relationships, embraces change, and builds resilience. 

And, all this learning happens in a state of uncertainty and ambiguity. An entrepreneur wants sustainable systems, and in creating these, he has to constantly live with the ambiguity of finding something that works. In the meantime, the first attempts may be a minimum viable solution, and that’s okay because the entrepreneur’s actions center around improvement of the solution in a cyclical process of iteration, testing, refining, implementing, and back again.

That’s what a startup does. A startup exists to solve a problem, iterating through its cycle of improvement, over and over until it reaches a point of sustainability. And that’s the job of an entrepreneur.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs can help us build up our service-learning program because their thinking transfers well into what we are teaching our students when they undertake the service-learning projects in school.

“You can’t be seen until you learn to see.” 

Seth Godin

A valuable shift in thinking that students experience in service-learning may be to develop a vision. For our purposes, we can name some frames for looking at problems. Egocentric entrepreneurs, for example, might start from themselves. If they have a great idea, that’s the project. But this sort of vision is limited because it does not address the needs of others.

Assessing the needs in a community requires allocentric thinking, thinking from the other point of view. Allocentric entrepreneurs create their action agenda from others’ perspectives. A third consciousness might be macro-centric thinking. Macro-centric awareness references both egocentric and allocentric thinking. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs find their startup’s success by finding the intersection between a community’s needs and the value the entrepreneur brings to the situation. 

A macro-centric mindset allows the student to use research strategies to approach learning about a community’s needs or problems. They use reflective thinking skills to find their own interests, skills, talents, and knowledge which allows them to design a solution to the community’s problem. A service-learning project is born in the relationship between what a community needs and the solution the student may create using what they know, understand, and can do.

Find a community to serve

 When an entrepreneur finds the problem a community needs to solve, and learns what value to bring to the situation through creating solutions, that’s like a student searching for a local community that is willing to collaborate on the project. The project is a solution to the problem, and the student will need to use the next steps in the design process to create solutions and figure out how to deliver this to the community.

It’s like an entrepreneur figuring out the product that best presents the solution to the problems of their client group.

Match a need with a service

Successful entrepreneurs again exercise flexible thinking in this stage of the process. 

Egocentrism may be too narrow a cognitive theatre for the service provider student. For example, if the community the student wants to serve are teens in an orphanage who need to build confidence through public speaking, building a website course on public speaking might not be the most accessible solution. The student who thinks from his skill set (I know how to code a website and do research on public speaking skills for the content) may find the project inaccessible to the community he wishes to serve.

“Instead of asking what—what should you sell or what should you build?—you should be asking who. As in, who should you serve?” 

Ryan Levesque

Entrepreneurs like Ryan Levesque teach the young entrepreneur that the best way to start creating a solution is to ask the client. Using his ASK method, Levesque has successfully built more than one business by asking his potential clients what they want to learn, have or be. He starts designing solutions and products based on the clients’ answers. Entrepreneurs know that getting to know their community is one of the strongest foundations of a sustainable solution to a community problem. 

Build the service they want

“Do you have a product or service that people want? 

If you don’t have that, nothing else matters.” 

Noah Kagan

When the entrepreneur learns as thoroughly as she can about the community she wants to serve and what it is they need, that’s the stage when creation begins.

Microsoft’s Office Suite software is a perfect example of an entrepreneurial product. How many versions of Microsoft Word have you used? I think I’m now to 10.2 or something like that. Why is this a great example of an entrepreneurial creation? The versions of the software represents the iteration cycle that entrepreneurs like Bill Gates follow that keep their companies like startups: these companies are constantly working to refine and improve the product, learning from clients the changes in how they use the solution, and readjusting the solution so it incorporates how the clients want it to work for them. 

This is like a service-learning project. The initial solution is based on an initial acquaintance with a community and its needs, but over time, the service provider finds that the community changes as a response to new members, new environmental circumstances, and other variables. Solutions may need revision, tweaking, redesigning. 

Disruption is a norm, and in our VUCA world disruption happens quicker than it used to. Community needs may change quickly due to new circumstances, and the student exercises agile learning to redesign solutions or even to change them, to continue to serve their community.

And that’s why service-learning is not a one-off activity. 

Build relationships, not transactions

“Our job is to connect to people, to interact with them in a way that leaves them better than we found them, more able to get where they’d like to go.”

Seth Godin

A misconception about entrepreneurship is that it is a process that is mainly about money and business. Entrepreneurs do create income from their startups. Bill Gates certainly did. The entrepreneurs who lend their words to us in this blog post most certainly reap rewards from their creativity. But that’s not all entrepreneurship is about. Some people call it a management mindset; others like Eric Reis whose definition we started this article, view entrepreneurship as a mindset to create systemic solutions to a group’s problems, which is the similarity that we draw on for most of our comparison to service-learning.

Shin Fujiyama is an entrepreneur who started out his company, Students Helping Honduras as a service-learning project. Shin signed up for the trip to Honduras not aware of any idea that it was going to be his lifelong pursuit. He signed up because his sister and his friends were all going overseas for service-learning experiences, and he wanted to travel, too.

Shin learned that there were children who for one reason or another had very little opportunity. He also got to know the young people by volunteering to return to Honduras every summer when his university was on vacation break. And, Shin found he had the ideas, the knowledge and the skills to help the children gain opportunities. 

Shin still runs the organization he built when he was in college, and in 2009 he was named a CNN Hero. At the heart of his startup and entrepreneurial work in the non-profit Students Helping Honduras is the idea that by taking action every day, Shin is bringing second chances to young people who need to go to school and find pathways to hope in their lives.

Reflect on learning

The kind of experiential learning that Shin experienced in Honduras in the first years of his service-learning project reminds us of the value of personal development that can build when experiences bring reflection.

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” 

Ryan Holiday

When people take time to think about what they experience and what this experience might teach them, powerful transformations like what happened to Shin Fujiyama can turn into a lifelong pursuit that has meaning and impact. 

An entrepreneur’s brain is on full learning mode. The complexity of creating a system that sustains itself so that a solution continues long after the original startup founder is in the building brings so much to enrich the entrepreneur’s and others’ lives. As a friend once said to me, “We’re trying to build something that outlives us.”

When students create systems for service, their learning is on overdrive. When we think of all the skills and dispositions that a young person has to manifest to create a solution, take action on the solution, refine it in cyclical iteration…we hit all the survival skills someone living in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world might need when they leave school and tackle real problems in real communities with real impact goals. And when these entrepreneurs reflect on their learning, the emotional growth from social relationships they’ve developed over time with a community of people who may or may not be similar to them widens their consciousness of what is possible and what they can bring to others.

Keep showing up

Sustainable solution. Building community relationships. Resilience. Creativity. All these sound great, but there is one thing that sets successful entrepreneurs apart from those whose enterprises fold after a few years.

And that is showing up ready to take action, every single day. Even when the situation has all the VUCA elements on steroids and the entrepreneur is under pressure, he shows up and takes action.

“Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” 

Guy Kawasaki

Service-learning projects are essentially entrepreneurial. Not the bake sales or food drives — those one-off activities that look good on a college application don’t add much to a student’s imagination or internal resourcefulness. But the projects which require the one thing that separates the mega-successful entrepreneurs and those who aren’t. That one thing? It’s showing up and taking action every day.

Even when no one is looking, the entrepreneur works hard. Even when results are not yet visible, the entrepreneur works hard. Even when there are naysayers and highly technical tasks that they don’t already know how to do, entrepreneurs show up to learn and take action on their learning.

This grit is the difference between ideas that die and ideas that make a difference to others. The grit is what we witness when a project struggles to get off the planning board into an application, and the student still shows up, every day, and works toward some other way it can work that she hasn’t found yet but will in time.

Service-learning programs are the heart of entrepreneurship in our schools. They might also be the body of work experiences that we can invite our students to undertake so they can approach problem-solving and find themselves.

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://learnertoolbox.com.

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