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OASIS facilitates social innovation at St. Olaf

Becca Heistad '09
May 18, 2009

As they wrap up a busy yet successful inaugural school year of operation, members of a new St. Olaf organization committed to meeting universal social needs are already looking ahead. Oles Advancing Social Innovation and Sustainability (OASIS) is a learning community of students, faculty, staff and alumni who are actively engaged in social innovation and entrepreneurship.

America's long history of entrepreneurship has steadily increased its focus on humanitarian causes. On May 5, for example, first lady Michelle Obama announced the creation of a White House Social Innovation Fund to support the most innovative nonprofits and social entrepreneurs in order to tackle the issues of today. "The idea is simple," she says. "Find the most effective programs out there and then provide the capital needed to replicate their success in communities around the country that are facing similar challenges."

OASIS provides St. Olaf students with a response to the social innovation trend, promoting new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges and sponsoring on-campus speakers and events. Their official mission is "to build and strengthen the capacity of individuals and communities to develop innovative solutions to social problems for a more just, sustainable world."

"In some ways, we are the 'social' complement to Ole Ventures and their business approach to entrepreneurship," OASIS member Maren Gelle '10 explains. The membership is what Gelle calls "a random bunch of like-minded people working on projects that are innovative, effective and sustainable."

Starting the trend
Throughout the 2009 school year OASIS invited a diverse assortment of speakers to the Hill, including Greg Dees of Duke University's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship; Sarah Meslow, founder of Camp Odayin, a Minnesota camp for children with heart disease; and First Step Initiative founder Chingwell Mutombu, whose work surrounds microfinancing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Johnson Social Innovation Internship program and Case Challenge, made possible by St. Olaf alumnus Mark Johnson '82, has provided additional opportunities for students to combine their passion for social justice issues with the development of their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

Another highlight of the year, according to OASIS coordinator Kris Estenson, involved working with Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin from Northfield's Rural Enterprise Center to launch a program that will teach low-income (especially Latino) families to become economically self-sufficient through small-scale organic farming.

Looking ahead
OASIS members hope that their future efforts will help them meet their overall goals of educating students about the rising field of social entrepreneurship and provide resources and support for students with innovative ideas that address the root causes of social problems. "Next year we hope to not only bring speakers to campus, but also reach out to alumni in the field of social entrepreneurship with the hopes that they will lead seminars, conduct site visits and allow for shadowing opportunities and mentorships," Estenson says.

"We plan to have one project a semester that [the student leadership team is] really committed to, as well as educational events and resources that would help students on campus with other projects," Gelle adds.

The group already has plans in the works for a Social Entrepreneurship Retreat at which students will have the opportunity to spend the night in the Twin Cities area, visiting and serving at various nonprofit organizations.

Members believe that OASIS is an organization that aligns well with the St. Olaf mission as a globally minded, locally committed college of the church, according to Gelle. They have written a constitution and will apply to become a student organization recognized by the Student Government Association on campus next year.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or