Turning Ideas Into Action at the Clinton Global Initiative University

April 8, 2016

3:43 pm

I just got back from Berkeley, CA where I had the chance to hang out with 1,200 of the world’s most inspired and passionate social venturers representing 80 countries. Their enthusiasm, coupled with the wisdom of speakers like Bill Clinton, Salman Khan, Ben Silbermann and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, made for an exhilarating and stimulating weekend.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) is an annual gathering of global leaders who meet to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Started by President Bill Clinton in 2007, the CGI University is a variant of the Clinton Global Initiative but for college students. Like its big sibling, participants are asked to make “Commitments to Action” and then report back on their progress periodically.

The process starts with an application to CGI U. If accepted, students are then invited to attend a two-day meeting. This year it was at the University of California—Berkeley. Alternatively led by Bill and Chelsea Clinton, attendees got a heaping, helping dose of inspiration and motivation not to mention some constructive help in the nuts and bolts of implementing their Commitments.

The Commitments to Action are pledges made to pursue projects in one of the CGI’s five focus areas:

  1. Education
  2. Environment and Climate Change
  3. Peace and Human Rights
  4. Poverty Alleviation
  5. Public Health.

Presentations ranged from plenary sessions hosted by Bill and Chelsea Clinton to a number of breakout sessions where students could get guidance and advice from experts in their fields.

President Clinton told the audience that their generation is unique in that they can choose what they want to do with their lives. For most of human history, that hasn’t been true.

This was nothing like the tech conferences I typically attend. The attendees were all motivated, passionate and inspired social venturers who, with the encouragement of CGI and the help of their universities, will spend the next year implementing their projects. The fact that we are at Berkeley—historically the epicenter of social activism—was not lost on the attendees.

President Clinton said, “Failure is not fatal, but the failure to try is inexcusable.” Accordingly, we heard a lot about the necessity of failure and its importance as a learning process which, for the determined, brings one closer to success. As a result, we heard stories of many people who overcame challenges and setbacks.

The weekend was punctuated by panel discussions which included (in the words of Bill Clinton) overachievers such as Sal Khan of Khan Academy, Ben Silbermann of Pinterest and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh of MuslimGirl.net. Chelsea Clinton moderated a panel that included Premal Shah, the co-founder and president of Kiva.org. Conan O’Brien moderated a panel discussion during the closing plenary session with Bill and Chelsea Clinton who took questions from the audience.

Sal Khan told the audience: “Don’t waste inspiration”; when something inspires you, you have to act on it.

The weekend was entirely non-political, but for me it was fascinating to listen to Bill Clinton opine on topics ranging from redistricting to astrophysics to leadership to inclusive economics. Videos of all of the sessions are available.

The point was both subtle and obvious. By learning from other social venturers…hearing their stories and understanding their fears and the adversity they overcame and how they handled it…the audience was inspired. I know I was (wishing I were 30 years younger…).

The final day of the event was spent performing community service in a Day of Action. Several hundred students, along with the Clintons and Marshawn Lynch, painted, gardened and repaired the Havenscourt-Lockwood school campus in Oakland, CA.

At Michigan State University we had ten students attend, representing six unique projects. After a weekend of inspiration, the challenge for the students is to make good on their commitments with whatever support they need from the university. MSU’s projects ranged from cultivating mealworms that eat polystyrene to using virtual reality to treat addicts to a clean energy project. One of our students summed up the weekend this way:

“CGI U provided a great opportunity for students to commit to their passions that universally involve the betterment of others. The diversity and people you meet is something I will never forget. The drive to commit to an action is only further driven after the meeting, and I cannot wait to get work.”

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Neil Kane, the Director of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship at Michigan State University, is a leading authority on technology commercialization and innovation and has the battle scars to prove it. He was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2007. His Twitter handle is @neildkane. He’s also on Google+ and LinkedIn.

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