“Talent is equally distributed around the world, opportunity is not”: Karen Henken’s leadership in social innovation and peacebuilding

Karen Henken is a Professor of Practice and Institutional Relations at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. She shares her story and belief in the power and intersection of social innovation, economic empowerment and peacebuilding as she recounts her experience during her career, both in her role as a professor of practice and a long time executive in global businesses.

My entire early career was spent in Asia. I began my career with the Fulbright Commission in Japan, working with the Japanese Ministry of Education, and then spent 20 years based in Silicon Valley and commuting back and forth from California, setting up and running sales and marketing operations for high tech companies throughout Asia. In the course of that experience, I saw the power of entrepreneurship and economic growth to transform countries from deep poverty to increased access to opportunities and sustainable income for countless citizens.   More recently I have been working extensively in East Africa and Latin America. What I see as a common thread in all of these countries is that post-conflict transformation is so powerful. The big question I am always thinking about is how do you bring a country together to rally around the power of economic transformation as creating the long term opportunity for its citizens and for peacebuilding? 

Students participating in a design thinking workshop

In Rwanda, I have seen these peacebuilding efforts really take shape precisely because there is an economic transformation that has emerged, providing hope, economic opportunity and increased prosperity to large parts of the population. Prior to my role at the Kroc School I served as Vice President of Business Development for a trade finance company focused on East Africa, We raised a $150 million fund to support funding opportunities for small to medium sized entrepreneurs in East Africa. These entrepreneurs are successful business people with incredible potential to import critical products into East Africa in healthcare, education and information technology but with no ability to get bank funding to make this happen. Our fund empowered them to succeed while making a difference with products that could change the landscape of their countries.

This is what I have seen in many ways through my more recent work in Colombia. Colombia was gripped by a brutal civil war for decades, impacting the economy, safety and security of its citizens. Under President Santos, the author of the Colombian Peace Accord in 2016, Colombia created a system of reparations and restorative justice between the FARC, the Colombian population, and the government. President Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for that very complex arrangement which was unlike much other legislation as it had large scale government support and has been enacted with a relative fidelity. Colombia is a living laboratory of the intersection between peacebuilding, social innovation, restorative justice, and economic transformation. These shifts have also led to a dramatic change in global public opinion with Colombia growing as a budding tourist destination as well as trading partner.

Professor Karen Henken and workshop participants in Bogota

My work in Colombia to date has been with Corporación Universitaria Minuto de Dios, or more commonly known as UNIMINUTO. UNIMINUTO is a university that was established 25 years ago as a social enterprise with the goal of being accessible and relevant to addressing broader systemic change. Over the past quarter of a decade, it has grown to have national reach with a very large presence in rural areas reaching over 130,000 students across 85 campuses. This offers opportunities for economic transformation and training for students to access employment, workforce development, and hope in places where there was really no hope for many decades. They do this by bringing education to the people instead of requiring them to come to them.  They have a wide network of campuses, providing flexible weekend and evening courses, and charging tuition on a sliding scale and provide low-cost loans to make furthering their education more fiscally feasible. UNIMINUTO has a particularly high graduation rate and employment post-graduation rate.

My first interface with UNIMINUTO was 2.5 years ago when I went to Bogota to launch a Social Innovation Bootcamp. I was brought on to teach 35 faculty and staff from all around the country to teach principles of social innovation and interactive teaching methodologies. I then returned for a second long-term stint to do 2 additional boot camps. My most recent trip in December was working with students in the Northern Caribbean coast on a short-term intensive social innovation and design thinking boot camp, walking them through the process of how they would design a solution to a social challenge from start to finish using design thinking.

Professor Henken with UNIMINUTO Students visiting the University of San Diego

I really enjoy being involved in these social change efforts, because I believe that peacebuilding is only as sustainable as the economic prosperity that supports it. If there is no opportunity for economic advancement then the FARC can come in, and illicit drugs might then become the main source of income again. Long-term peacebuilding requires that there are economic opportunities for the population you are looking to serve, which in the case of UNIMINUTO are the youth. I am often reminded of a well-known quote by Bill Clinton that says “Talent is equally distributed around the world, opportunity is not.” I believe that practical education around new century skills has the potential to change this reality. I see this with the UNIMINUTO students, many of whom may come from very resource-poor contexts but have a passion and commitment to create large scale change for their country. They have so much creative power, so it is my great joy to find ways to support that and see their role in creating a better Colombia.

Meet Karen Henken  https://globaledleadership.org/karen-henken/

Khenken@sandiego.edu

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