A look inside Emerging Innovators Bootcamps

Jan 28, 2020

125 changemakers, 5 cities, 3 continents. Here’s what happened.

Social entrepreneurs gather in Mexico City for one of 5 American Express Leadership Academy Emerging Innovators Bootcamps around the world in fall 2019.

By Sarah Holcomb

Just outside of Nairobi, Kenya, a group of young African social entrepreneurs were in the middle of a dance-off as music blasted from a hotel speaker. The sun had set long ago, but energy remained high.

Earlier that evening, they had presented gifts to each other — accompanied by thoughtful words and good-natured teasing — to celebrate the end of an event bringing together changemakers across East Africa. Over three days, the 25 individuals, each working to solve social problems in their communities, had become a close-knit group.

The last of five such gatherings around the world in fall 2019, the event took place under the banner of American Express Leadership Academy Emerging Innovators Bootcamps, hosted by Ashoka in partnership with American Express.

Six weeks before the Nairobi Bootcamp the series of events began, each one piloting a different theme. First innovators gathered in New York City, focusing on solutions to the widening wealth gap in the U.S. Then young entrepreneurs in Dakar, Senegal convened around the topic of digital innovation in Africa.

In October, a global group of entrepreneurs gathered in Madrid to draft ambitious goals for the fight against climate change while innovators in Mexico dedicated three days to the importance of personal wellbeing.

The Bootcamps have evolved over time, but they aren’t new: over the last eight years, Ashoka and American Express have convened hundreds of social entrepreneurs around the world at these intimate gatherings, all focusing on collective leadership and systemic change.

Ashoka and American Express continue to experiment with different formats for the Bootcamps. In their current iteration, the gatherings are structured as retreats. Beyond focusing on business know-how or networking, the Bootcamps bring out a deep level of connection and community among social entrepreneurs.

At these events, changemakers find others like themselves who have radically dedicated their lives to the common good.

Unlikely connections

In New York City, a Connecticut-based dietician — the daughter of immigrants who found her calling in community nutrition — sat across from an Alabama educator who runs college prep programs.

They were joined by social innovators who are working with youth in Colorado, student-athletes in Washington D.C., and indigenous communities in California. Surrounded by other small groups, the six leaders circled up in a conference room to brainstorm how to address the economic injustices affecting their communities.

A group of innovators collaborate on a new idea to promote financial inclusion in the U.S.

Suspended 17 stories above the buzzing Chinatown neighborhood in Manhattan, unlikely connections became common in this room. The New York City Bootcamp focused on collaboration, bringing innovators together to brainstorm ideas and form teams to address economic injustice.

The Madrid Bootcamp also convened leaders — all Ashoka Fellows — around an urgent subject: the climate crisis. For three days, the group poured energy into creating ambitious “moonshot” goals for saving the planet, which they will collectively revise and work towards in the future.

Innovators in Dakar, Senegal formed a close community during the Bootcamp.

Whether connecting people who are working on the same issue or different ones, each Bootcamp provides space for social entrepreneurs to encourage and challenge one another, ultimately deepening their impact.

These connections aren’t just professional — they’re personal.

In Dakar, participants became like a family, bonding as they played sports on the beach in the mornings before working in pairs during the day. Marc Carr, Ashoka’s Bootcamp Manager, observed that “when they [would] break up into groups you really felt this spirit of community and spirit of collaboration that was very palpable.”

Tchanlandjou Kpare, who organized the Dakar Bootcamp, said that he is often concerned about young entrepreneurs working in silos — a problem the Bootcamp addresses by bringing them together in-person and encouraging collective leadership.

“If you want to make a huge impact, you have to collaborate,” he says. “You do this [by] being part of a network, sharing your needs and asking for help or support, because this is how you can really improve what you are doing and…support other people.”

Finding community

Peer support is a core pillar of the Bootcamps. Participants come from many backgrounds and work across different sectors and communities, but each gathering reveals how diverse groups of innovators experience similar struggles.

“During the three days of the Bootcamp, it became clear that many social innovators struggle with the same challenges of being chronically overworked, without having the skills to cope with that,” said Arne Pauwels, a participant from Belgium who attended a Bootcamp in 2017.

A 2016 psychological study by researchers at the University of Quebec revealed that entrepreneurs — specifically those who own and operate of small-to-medium sized enterprises — are more at risk for burnout and occupational loneliness. The report’s suggested remedy: social connectedness with peers.

For leaders struggling to sustain meaningful work, the Bootcamps offer a rescue from the daily grind to ask deeper questions.

Stéphane de Messieres, a partnership leader at Ashoka, recalled his first experience attending a Bootcamp five years ago, when a successful social entrepreneur shared openly about her own struggles following a public scandal.

The energy in the room immediately changed, as innovators felt free to share about stress in their personal lives and relationships.

“They can talk to a lot of people about their business plan and funding — that happens all the time — but getting to the really raw, core, vulnerable things…they never have a place to talk about that,” he explained. As a result, “it’s really transformative.”

This year, Mexico City’s Bootcamp focused on personal wellbeing. A facilitator guided the group of entrepreneurs, who must balance personal and professional life under significant pressure. They took turns sharing their struggles in a “coaching circle,” allowing other group members to serve as coaches to help them overcome challenges. They reflected on their current state and envisioned how they want to lead in the future.

Ashoka Fellows bond during the 2019 Mexico City Bootcamp.

“The things we do at these escapes from reality are reaffirming, re-stimulating and very empowering to continue doing what we do,” Ashoka Fellow and Mexico City Bootcamp participant Mauricio Canseco said.

Experimenting with the experience

Since the Bootcamps began in 2012, the geographic scope has expanded. Originally launched in three North American cities, the Bootcamps took place in five cities around the world in 2019.

At the same time, the Bootcamps have experimented to align with region-specific goals. Local Ashoka staff in each area, who support social entrepreneurs year-round, create the vision for their Bootcamp, integrating it with the work already taking place and customizing the experience to fit the needs of local social entrepreneurs.

This year, the Bootcamps in Dakar, Nairobi, and NYC hosted emerging innovators, while the Madrid and Mexico City Bootcamps hosted more experienced Ashoka Fellows. Every bootcamp includes Ashoka fellows — a global group of top-tier social entrepreneurs — either as participants or speakers.

In Dakar, a former Bootcamp participant — now an Ashoka Fellowship representative in the Sahel — shared his own journey with participants. His story, which also testified to the eight-year legacy of the American Express Leadership Academy Emerging Innovators Bootcamps, showed young entrepreneurs that “there are open doors for you,” Kpare said.

Some Bootcamps invite experts or members of the corporate sector to share their perspectives. Representatives from American Express met social entrepreneurs at the NYC Bootcamp, and offered feedback following a pitch session on the last day.

A global group of social entrepreneurs gathered at the Madrid Bootcamp to collaborate on solutions for the climate crisis.

On the second day of the Madrid Bootcamp, guests from the corporate sector were invited to share their challenges in terms of environmental impact and climate change. As the entrepreneurs developed plans for action, they included on-site input from the business community.

“None of [these climate solutions] would happen if the corporate sector is not involved,” explained Maira Cabrini, who organized the event for Ashoka.

The big picture

When social entrepreneurs come together, they illuminate a powerful, shared vision for a more just world.

Kpare is encouraging the rising generation of social entrepreneurs to gain wider support for their work. He sees the Bootcamp contributing to a vision “to build a strong network in French speaking countries across Africa to really begin to raise their voice… in order to work for the good of people.”

“I’m pushing at the systemic change — how to really use the good job they are doing on the ground to make it more large,” he explained, “to [let] everybody know this is something that’s happening and I can be part of it.”

This systemic way of thinking is built into each Bootcamp, and frames how entrepreneurs see their work.

“We get lost in the daily routine of achieving very concrete results,” said Canseco. “We suddenly forget that the vision of the social entrepreneur is to transform a system, and that is a long-term job that requires taking distance to be able to see the great vision from above and return to feed the team.”

Solving large-scale problems — whether related to global warming, economic injustice, or digital inequalities — requires breaking out of individual silos to build connections. As the pace of change accelerates globally, the need for changemakers grows more urgent.

“The social entrepreneurs who come to the Bootcamps are creating solutions to critical issues in their communities,” said Timothy J. McClimon, President of the American Express Foundation. “But due to time and resource constraints, they rarely have opportunities to network with and learn from other changemakers and experts in the field who can help them grown in their leadership. We established the American Express Leadership Academy Emerging Innovators Bootcamps to help address that need.”

Looking ahead, Carr will continue to encourage social innovators to “engage with each other and learn from each other.” The Bootcamps provide an “opportunity to create global movements,” he said, “by connecting people across the world.”

A look inside Emerging Innovators Bootcamps was originally published in A New Game on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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