Young Social Innovators: How this entrepreneur brought her vision to reality

1 Aug 2018

Rachel Collier. Image: Young Social Innovators

In this week’s Leaders’ Insights, we move from the corporate world to the non-profit sector as we hear from Rachel Collier of YSI.

Rachel Collier is co-founder and CEO at Young Social Innovators (YSI).

Founded in 2001, YSI is a non-profit organisation that enables young people to grapple with difficult social issues, advocating reform and advancing change through its programmes, training and events.

A communications graduate, Collier previously served as managing director at Focus Ireland and also spent time working in her organisation, Perspectives, offering consultancy services in the not-for-profit sector.

‘At YSI, we live and breathe social innovation’

Describe your role and what you do.

From developing education initiatives, to communications and marketing, to promoting social innovation and liaising with key stakeholders, my role requires input across a broad range of YSI activities.

With YSI, I wanted to create something that every teenager could get involved in, no matter where they went to school and regardless of their age or ability. By offering exciting programmes that engage teenagers in social innovation, anyone can get involved.

From my years of being involved in social innovation, I see its power and its potential to drive change that is systemic, innovative, collaborative and people-led. I believe in the power of humans to use their creativity to evolve a better world. That’s something that drives me and guides me in in my role as a leader.

I couldn’t do any of this without the amazing team that I have around me. We are a small team with huge ambition, motivation and energy.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I have dedicated a large part of my life to contributing to social innovation and to pioneering and championing social innovation learning and practice. I see my work with YSI as more than a just a job. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to bring my vision of social innovation education to reality – it’s a dream come true.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

I think there is a recognition in both the public and private sectors of the need for progressive educational methods to equip young people with the skills they need to thrive socially and professionally in an increasingly uncertain and changing world.

There are real ways to do this. Introducing something new in a very well-established post-primary education system, however, is not easy. We are on the outside and, because this is new, there are no clear funding sources that can support opportunities such as this for educators and students alike. This creates a vulnerable financial situation.

Social innovations face real challenges and, without clear mechanisms to support and grow, they can struggle to continue even if their value is well known and evidenced. There needs to be a way of gauging and measuring the cost of not doing things, as well as the cost of doing things. If we want teenagers to contribute to society, we need to support real and tangible ways of making this happen. A lack of engagement of our young people can have a greater cost to society.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Increasingly, both the Government and the private sector are recognising that the time is right to develop Ireland as a world leader in innovation. More specifically, I believe that we need to be a world leader in innovation that adds social value. There is an opportunity now for Ireland to develop a policy framework on social innovation as a major strategy in building a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable economy and society.

There is an abundance of potential and talent for social innovation in Ireland today. At YSI, we capitalise on the pool of untapped energy in young people, enabling social innovation and entrepreneurship to thrive. I want to see social innovation and entrepreneurial learning for all ages within primary, secondary and third level, and in other education and community settings.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

In 1985, I was 24 years old and I had just spent two years working with young homeless women in Dublin. Working alongside the renowned social innovator, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, we opened the doors of Focus Point (now Focus Ireland) that year.

This organisation was set up as a result of young women who shared their life stories with us and who contributed their ideas for the kind of service they felt was needed. We listened and developed a new and different type of service based on their real-life insights.

In 2001, having giving birth to my fourth child, I had another ambition. Still wanting to work to effect change to create a fairer, more equal society, my big question was how to use our young population to work for social justice. The challenge was to design a way for this to happen that was flexible and robust enough to fit within and outside the education system. I chose the concept of social innovation and developed opportunities for youth to learn and practise this. This became known as social innovation education and was channelled through a new organisation set up in 2001, called Young Social Innovators.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I like to think of mistakes as lessons. In fact, if possible, I would like to find a new word that describes something you do that didn’t work out the way you thought but that you have learned from. Learning from mistakes is integral to innovation. One example of a lesson I have learned along the way is not to diversify your offerings too fast. Get the value of your unique offering known and build your company identity around this.

How do you get the best out of your team?

At YSI, we live and breathe social innovation, and it drives everything we do. Idea generation and creative thinking is very much respected and encouraged, and I work with the team in YSI to integrate innovative methods into our work. Our methods are very much informed by values of human rights and social justice. Everyone here is committed to these values, so is highly motivated.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

YSI is filling a void, developing the skills that all of our young people need to be innovative and entrepreneurial in their approaches. Increasingly, we are seeing them develop STEM solutions to issues they care about. Social innovation education can provide effective solutions to the very real problems caused by of a lack of gender diversity in STEM.

It is widely recognised that we need more women involved in STEM careers. We have seen that social issues and causes provide a strong motivation to girls to engage more fully in STEM. Two-thirds of YSI participants are female. Through the YSI programme, these young women engage in creating STEM solutions, seeing that there is a social value to be gained.

We are not alone in seeing this phenomenon. Last year, a report on women in STEM released by Accenture identified ‘societal issues’ as the main driver for encouraging girls towards STEM subjects. YSI is therefore at the forefront of this challenge. Our approach not only encourages girls to get involved in STEM, it increases their engagement in problem-solving through STEM solutions.

Who is your role model and why?

I have a few people I really admire in different ways rather than one person. I’m extremely passionate about YSI and its role in Irish society. I see it as a means to harness the passion of teenagers, to engage them actively and creatively in making this country a fairer, more inclusive society. These teenagers and their projects are what truly inspire me and motivate me in my work with YSI every day.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I have just finished two: The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, which has some fantastic insights that can easily be applied in the workplace; and Striking Back by Mary Manning, one of the Dunnes Stores strikers in the 1980s. Their voices ignited a mass movement they couldn’t have imagined. Within months, they were embroiled in a dispute that captured the world’s attention. The strike drove our Government to introduce a ban on all South African goods – the fruits of apartheid – which in effect contributed to the fall of apartheid some years later. Youth voices can be powerful when listened to!

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I recently discovered the use of Magic Whiteboard so my office wall is covered in it. My scrawls don’t look pretty but it helps keep me focused!

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.