Celebrating 10 Years of Exploring Social Innovation

The Exploring Social Innovation (ESI) program, currently held twice a year in Silicon Valley and once a year in China, offers young changemakers from across Asia an opportunity to learn innovative ways to make the world a better place by engaging in hands-on experiences as well as visiting and engaging with successful social innovators in the San Francisco area.

ESI History

The ESI program, launched in 2010, was inspired by a desire to dive deeper into social issues that other VIA programs introduced. The American Service Learning (ASL) summer program, later renamed Asia US Service Learning program (AUSL), was launched in 2005. Two years later, the spring Serving American Community (SAC) program was developed with a focus on poverty issues in the Bay Area. In 2010,  due to the popularity of innovation and design-thinking and input from alumni, VIA decided to shift SAC to a program designed around social innovation, giving birth to the current Exploring Social Innovation program. Initially offered at Stanford as a 3-week program, VIA decided to redesign ESI as a 2-week program held in San Francisco in 2014. Being in the city meant having  access to more diverse organizations and perspectives. It also created more opportunities for hands-on experience with innovation tools like design-thinking and applying skills learned in workshops directly in San Francisco through projects and volunteer activities. Building on the success of ESI’s model, VIA converted its 3-week summer Exchange for Social Entrepreneurs and Leaders (XSEL) program into two ESI sessions in 2015, bringing the annual number of sessions to three, held in February, July, and August. In 2018, VIA consolidated the two summer programs into one August session and piloted ESI in China in 2019.

In the past decade, over 350 participants representing 18 nationalities (primarily China, Japan, Thailand, and Myanmar) have joined the ESI program. Through organization visits, experiential workshops with mentors, peer reflections, and community building, participants had the opportunity to see innovation in action, discover new perspectives and explore new insights on ways to connect their own desire for contributing to their communities with the possibility of becoming a social innovator. 

Sharing their favorite ESI memories, alumni highlight visiting social enterprises, storytelling activities, design-thinking, V-talks, social issues simulation workshops, and interviewing the homeless community in San Francisco as their most rewarding experiences. 

ESI 10 Year Anniversary Survey Highlights

In March, VIA sent out a survey to all ESI alumni to collect reflections and updates from the community. Although still collecting responses at the time of print, highlights from initial responses include:

  • 85% shared that ESI helped strengthen their creative problem-solving skills as professionals
  • 80% indicated their ESI experience helped shape their personal values
  • 80% indicated the program made them more aware of diversity
  • 74% shared that they use design-thinking in their own life

Of the 30 respondents who completed the survey so far, 28% work in education, 11% in communications, 11% in social services, and 11% in business administration. Many alumni credit ESI as a stepping stone for their future career goals, opening their minds to possibilities, and feeling prepared to create positive change by applying the tools ESI has taught them.

Alumni Spotlight

Zhiye (Tea) Zhou, ESI February 2014 alumna from China, shared her initial interest in ESI, as well as her growth and her journey since the program in a recent interview. 

Zhiye was very much interested in volunteering, philanthropy and public good issues, so when she discovered the program, she immediately thought it would be a good opportunity to expand her traditional thinking of “doing good” and knowledge about “social innovation” approaches and practices. The on-site visits to many social innovation organizations were the most rewarding aspect of the program, enabling her “to vividly see the stories behind their work, their missions, passions, and also challenges”, inspiring her and giving her the courage to delve deeper into the field. 

Zhiye specifically mentioned her visit to Kiva, an online microfinance social enterprise, as her favorite memory: ”It was my first time to realize that philanthropy, business and technology could work together for greater good, and create a more enabling environment for vulnerable people to build up their own wellness. It was very inspiring for me.” 

 Zhiye shared that the most precious gift that ESI gave her is the ongoing  passion to be a real participant in the social sector in which she works. Zhiye is currently a program manager at the Narada Foundation, a grant-making foundation in China that supports NGOs to enhance their organizations and work. 

Yi Zhang, VIA’s Social Innovation Programs Director, discussed the patterns they noticed in the recruitment process, and the passion and desire ESI participants have to meet like-minded people: “the participants care about social issues in their local and global communities and want to do something about them, and not only during university but throughout their life.” Yi stressed VIA’s interests in always finding the right people, guiding them through the steps to find meaning, be inspired, and take skills and knowledge back home and create change. 


Looking Forward

Stemming from a 2017 collaboration with XinHe Foundation, the idea to launch the ESI program in China came about as a way to bring social innovation mindsets and tools back to NGO leaders’ work on rural and early childhood education. Thanks to XinHe and Enlight Foundation’s full financial support, the ESI China program was launched in April 2019 in Chengdu. ESI China was the first move to extend VIA’ s mission and work from being primarily oriented towards college students and experiential exchange to professionals who brought a higher level of training and experience but also sought new ways of thinking and support through a community.

ESI China’s success and the continuous interest and support from alumni will be taking ESI to the Inner Mongolian grasslands in 2020. In the next decade, VIA hopes to keep expanding beyond cultural exchange and, through experiential program design, continue to train leaders who are driving change and working towards creating meaningful social impact with their communities.