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Duke Team Shares Experiences, Insights with Social Innovation Learning Accelerators

In a presentation at the University Global Coalition (UGC) annual conference on September 28, representatives from Duke presented on lessons for scaling sustainable impact through university-based social innovation accelerators. Duke joined the UGC in Summer 2021, becoming part of its network of universities dedicated to advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in their research, teaching, and engagement.

Krishna Udayakumar (Director, Duke Global Health Innovation Center), Matt Nash (Managing Director, Social Innovation for Duke I&E), and Taylor Conger (Program Manager, Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator) shared how Duke has pioneered inquiry and practice in the field of social innovation for more than two decades with a wide range of initiatives in teaching, research, practitioner engagement, innovation, and commercialization. In particular, Duke’s various interdisciplinary learning accelerators have identified, assessed, and supported social enterprises with promising innovations in a variety of fields.

Nash described how various initiatives, programs, and centers at Duke have collaborated to build synergies surrounding social innovation activities—such as to foster participation in social innovation networks and competitions—as well as to dissolve the types of boundaries that exist at universities.

With learning accelerators such as The Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD), Innovations in Healthcare, and the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, benefits extend to the innovators themselves, who learn to build capacity and scale impact; faculty and staff, who teach, advise, conduct research, and build thought leadership; students, who gain inspiration, engagement, and hands-on experience; and the field at large as knowledge and policy insights are shared and collective impact grows.

For students, accelerators provide opportunities to work on special projects, do consulting, find internships, and conduct research directly with innovators. In Spring 2021, students partnered with entrepreneurs in the first cohort of the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, conducting in-depth research to provide the enterprises with capacity-building support to scale. All the innovators in the Accelerator’s first cohort had a focus on menstrual health and hygiene (MHH), seeking to improve the status quo for women and girls facing a lack of information and resources as well as widespread social stigma surrounding menstruation.

Arya Patel ’22 worked with SaCoDé, an NGO based in Burundi that provides education to women and girls about menstrual hygiene and produces a menstrual pad that can be worn without underwear to reach a more remote, lower income community. “I learned a lot about the way international development organizations and consultants work together to innovate and create connections between grassroots implementers and high-level organizations to work towards social change,” Patel said.

“Imagine a future in which students ask each other not, ‘What is your major?’ but instead, ‘What problem are you solving?’” Nash said. “By engaging students with innovators on the lines of positive social and environmental change, we are empowering students to become systems thinkers, human-centered designers, and change makers prepared for a lifetime in service of the public good.”  

The Duke-UNICEF Virtual Forum on Social Innovation is an annual week-long event that brings together voices from around the world—from academia, INGOs, business, and social enterprise—to deepen the conversation around the sustainable development goals and social innovation. This year’s Virtual Forum will take place October 25-29 with a special focus on SDG 6. Register here:

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