Diversity and Democracy

New Challenge: Developing Entrepreneurial Leaders for Social Impact

Since its inception in 1919, The New School has been at the forefront of progressive higher education, with a rich history of supporting the engagement of students and scholars in thinking about positive social change and challenging the status quo. New Challenge is part of this legacy and an example of how the university continually responds to a changing world.

There is demand globally for new solutions that enhance environmental sustainability and that meet human needs for better health, sanitation, education, and financial security. At the same time, the economy is being transformed by technology and globalization in ways that are changing students’ career choices. For example, Forbes predicts that, by 2020, freelancers and entrepreneurs will comprise more than 50 percent of the American workforce (Wald 2014).

In this context, there is a growing need for students to develop entrepreneurial mindsets and skills. Students must be able to work effectively across boundaries to tackle complex problems that span diverse cultures, sectors, and disciplines. Core competencies for the future will be creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, empathy, resilience, communication, and collaboration. Learning environments like New Challenge, which emphasizes project-based, experiential learning situated in the real world, can help students develop these critical competencies.

A University-Wide Platform

New Challenge is a university-wide social innovation education platform launched in 2012. A year-round learning experience open to both undergraduate and graduate students across the university, New Challenge involves a robust selection process in which the entire New School community identifies teams with a high potential for transformative social impact. New Challenge has engaged more than five hundred alumni, faculty, and administrators as judges and mentors.

During a year of support, winning teams receive mentorship from faculty, staff, and alumni; participate in skill-building workshops; and receive up to $10,000 in seed funding. The teams draw on this support to develop tangible products, services, consultancies, cultural projects, mission-driven businesses, policy-oriented initiatives, media-related projects, game designs, and new technologies that address pressing social issues in communities around the world. This initial support enables many New Challenge winners to leverage additional resources both inside The New School and beyond, connecting with the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region and developing partnerships with a range of collaborators, including individuals, organizations, and companies.

To date, more than seven hundred students have participated in New Challenge, with a total of seventy students and their community partners receiving funding and other forms of support. Teams are tackling a range of issues, including transitional employment for the formerly incarcerated, sustainable transportation, housing and food justice, physical and learning disabilities, recycling, climate change, education, and civic technology, in locations that include New York City, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, India, Liberia, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Projects supported by New Challenge include

  • Amigo Legal (Lien Tran), which makes complex legal information readily accessible through games that empower immigrant youth to build skills and acclimate to life in the United States (http://lienbtran.com/games/toma-el-paso/);
  • STEAM Punks (Kristen Kersh and Mehdi Salehi), which expands educational content available for children in Afghanistan, offering opportunities to spark creativity and imagination by exploring technology and design through making (http://www.steampunks.cc/);
  • Disability and Beauty (Lucy Jones), which seeks to create a more inclusive approach to fashion by challenging the notion that design for those with disabilities should constitute a separate market (http://runwayofdreams.org/home/);
  • Drive Change (Annie Bickerton and Jordyn Lexton), which uses the food truck industry to broaden access to opportunity, reduce recidivism, and increase job-readiness for young adults leaving adult jails in New York City (http://drivechangenyc.org/);
  • Blank Plate (Mai Kobori, Eulani Labay, and Amy Findeiss), which addresses issues of food justice in the South Bronx by inspiring teens to engage in creative culinary experiences through community-based programs (https://vimeo.com/46536141);
  • blink blink (Nicole Messier and Alex Tosti), which inspires girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math through the production and dissemination of creative circuit kits (http://www.blinkblink.cc/); and
  • Project Fogg (James Frankis and Sean Baker), which helps communities respond quickly and effectively immediately following a disaster with the use of an inexpensive visualization and communication kit (http://www.seanbakerprojects.com/portfolio/project-fogg/).

Evidence of Impact

We recently surveyed past New Challenge winners (a total of seventy teams) to determine what impact their participation has had on them. The following quote captures the sentiment reflected in many responses:

Being a part of New Challenge has been my most valuable experience at The New School. It has taught me how to make a real impact on the world and made me realize what I want to do for the next 10 years. The support of New Challenge has given me the confidence to pursue this project on a bigger scale and the mentorship I needed to see it through. I have received leadership training that I will use for the rest of my life. (Kate Wallace, undergraduate student)

Survey results indicate considerable learning outcomes. For example, at least 90 percent of respondents indicated that they developed skills and mindsets related to collaboration, leadership, and project management, and that they enhanced their ability to adapt, take initiative, embrace challenges, and persist in the face of obstacles. These are critical capacities for graduates as they navigate their careers and life.  

Transformative Potential

The New School’s approach to social innovation education is distinct from the more prevalent and narrow orientation often found at business schools, which tends to focus exclusively on the creation of social ventures. Rather than idolizing the solo entrepreneur, we encourage students to form teams and design with, not for, communities. In addition to conceiving of innovative products and services, New School students work closely with community members to identify solutions that build the capacity of others to meet their own needs.

As a design-led university, we believe that creativity is central to the student learning experience, and we view design as an important means of finding solutions to complex challenges. We also recognize that all disciplines can and must contribute to innovation, preferably through transdisciplinary collaborations. We emphasize the creation of solutions with the potential for sustained systemic impact resulting in a more just world. Finally, we focus on developing social innovators who are versatile and who may pursue diverse careers that span the nonprofit, business, and public sectors. Our unique approach was recognized when we became one of the first universities selected as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, signifying leadership in social innovation and social entrepreneurship education.

New Challenge is part of a wave of continual innovation that directly supports the university’s strategic mission and vision. It enriches the learning experience across degree programs by creating a pathway for students to translate their ideas into reality through rigorous student-centered experiential learning. As a cocurricular program outside the formal structure of degree programs, it provides an important, flexible context for educational innovation where new learning methods can be tested and applied broadly over time. In particular, New Challenge breaks through artificial barriers commonly found within institutions of higher education, such as siloed academic disciplines, semester structures, and separations between teaching approaches that emphasize either theory or practice. New Challenge creates a more holistic student journey, enabling ideas hatched in the classroom to be taken to the next level in the real world with continued support and resources.

New Challenge was built from the ground up by a group of students and faculty from across the university. To support its ongoing evolution, we have created a highly participatory and iterative design-driven process involving multiple opportunities each year for cross-divisional groups of faculty, students, and administrators to convene, reflect, codesign, pilot, and test new features. We have learned much from New Challenge about the transformative potential of experiential learning that is rooted in real-world challenges, that puts students at the center, and that is highly networked and supported by a community of faculty, alumni, and peers. We recognize that achieving an effective balance between classroom-based learning and applied learning is essential for the entire university. The task ahead of us, and for all of higher education, is to design appropriate institutional structures so we can continue delivering relevant educational paradigms for today’s learners.

To learn more about New Challenge, visit http://newchallenge.newschool.edu/. To view a video of students reflecting on their participation in New Challenge, visit https://vimeo.com/58713050.


Wald, Jeff. 2014. “Five Predictions for the Freelance Economy in 2015.” Forbes, November 24. http://www.forbes.com/sites/waldleventhal/ 2014/11/24/5-predictions-for-the-freelance-economy-in-2015/#4a15a5414250.

Michele Kahane is associate dean of educational innovation and social engagement at The New School; professor of professional practice in management; and faculty director of New Challenge.

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