Kathryn Rydberg, '19
Learning through Service
When I entered the sixth grade, I switched to a new school. As the new girl, I was confronted by new classmates, new surroundings, and new classes—including a class called "Service Learning," which involved reading books to second graders at a nearby charter school.
Initially, I was confused as to why this program was called Service Learning. Since the goal of the class was to help the second-graders learn to read, I figured that a more accurate name might be "Service Teaching."
By the end of the year, however, I realized that the program had taught me as well. I came to understand how challenging it can be to teach a student something new, but more importantly, the experience of going to the school and interacting with the younger students exposed me to an environment and community that I would not have otherwise known.
Though this experience happened when I was much younger, the realization that service initiatives can be beneficial to the people doing service as well as to those in need stuck with me.
Fast forward to my first year at Stanford, when I came across a club that seemed to be focused on making the world a better place while teaching students valuable professional skills at the same time. As it turned out, professional skills were just the tip of the iceberg of what my involvement with the Stanford Social Entrepreneurial Students' Association (SENSA) would give me. Meaningful friendships, leadership skills, professional connections, experience speaking at an international conference with hundreds of attendees: these are all things I would never have had if not for SENSA.
I learned that not everyone agrees on what social entrepreneurship is, but that in general, it means applying entrepreneurial strategies in an effort to make positive, sustainable social change. Per that goal, social entrepreneurs recognize the crucial fact that if a business is economically sustainable, then it is able to make a more sustainable social impact. Similarly, organizations are more effective if smart, talented people continue to invest their efforts into them over time. Opportunities for learning and growth provide an incentive for people to continue their involvement with the organization—and that means that the organization can continue doing important work.
I saw this firsthand during a time of great turnover within SENSA. If students felt that they were not benefiting from their membership, they would quickly cease coming to meetings or replying to messages. Beyond the satisfaction of helping others, every organization has learning opportunities to offer its members: communication skills, teamwork, or leadership of an event or program. Though I was learning a great deal through my involvement with SENSA, I realized that others might lack access to these opportunities for growth. As a result, I worked to restructure SENSA to ensure that every member was able to take ownership of their service learning.
I believe that this lesson could also benefit social enterprises. Of course, the goal of many social enterprises is to put themselves out of business by solving the problem that they exist to address, but many social problems are so complicated that they will likely not be solved within our lifetimes. Therefore, the issue of talent should be viewed in the same terms as financial sustainability. Social enterprises should aim to keep employees and others who interact with their organizations engaged by offering benefits beyond the satisfaction of helping others. When the financial model and the "people model" are both sustainable, then an organization can focus fully on solving the complex issues that afflict our society.