Meet a Professor of Social Innovation from Germany– Lisa von der Heydt

Each year the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego in California welcomes international visiting scholars. Professor Lisa von der Heydte from Munich Germany joined the Kroc School this past winter and spring. In an exchange with graduate student Eva Koelzer, Dr. von der Heydte shared her story and some insights about social innovation.

Lisa von der Heydte considers herself a dynamic changemaker, dedicated social impact professional, and lifelong learner. She has engaged in work and/or study in France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. Her professional background is extensive and varied, including work in risk management, research, and social innovation and impact. Lisa is currently a professor of Social Entrepreneurship and Management of Social Innovations at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Munich. Read below as Lisa shares her perspectives on context in learning, nonlinear career paths, and connecting the dots between sectors and ideas. (Responses have been edited only as needed for conciseness and clarity.)

What led you to become a visiting scholar at the Kroc School and what are you hoping to get out of this experience?

I find it remarkable how the Kroc School has become an outstanding example of innovative teaching and learning experiences for future changemakers. So. what I am hoping to gain from my time as a visiting scholar is: (1) Learning from the Kroc School’s experience in building a curriculum around Social Innovation and the various activities and events that have been initiated here. At my home university in Munich, we are currently developing our own social innovations curriculum and are in the process of founding a social innovation accelerator program for our students and welfare organizations. And (2) I would like to better understand how social innovations are being scaled in a context where the welfare state is not as prevalent as it is in Germany.

What is the most valuable thing you have learned in your time as a visiting scholar?

In a recent conversation I had with Professor Paula Cordeiro, she framed my learnings very well, saying that “context matters.” As I said before, I started off this research project with the intention to learn from the USA, or more specifically from the Californian approach, to scaling, integrating, and supporting social innovations. However, I very quickly learnt that—as Professor Cordeiro said—“context matters” when it comes to learning from other approaches to funding, scaling or integrating social innovations.

The German social welfare system is considered one of the most reliable and equal welfare systems in the world. Today, however, the basis that it has been built on since the 19th century is facing enormous challenges. While the need for social support increases (e.g., due to demographic changes and the integration of refugees into the welfare system), the available funds decrease: the German welfare providers that are funded through the public insurance system are either private or affiliated to a church or religious order. Both of these financial sources are facing difficult times today, based on the effects of (1) the demographic change—namely fewer young people providing for a growing number of elderly people through the tax and insurance system—as well as (2) people leaving the church and thus not paying “church taxes” anymore (much smaller effect). Historically, in the United States, the private sector has played a bigger role in providing for social needs, together with an encompassing social welfare system. We Europeans gaze across the Atlantic admiring the support of private initiatives in social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

I quickly learnt, however, that whereas “social innovation” and “social entrepreneurship” are often used in comparable contexts on both sides of the Atlantic, in some regards they are even opposing conceptualizations and so are the routes they take in their development. The development and spread of social innovations depend on the political context they are embedded in, including the overall role of government, legal factors, the institutional environment, the social innovation ecosystem, historical factors, and private philanthropy. To take this last factor as an example: in Germany we have this notion of, “once we have paid our taxes, the government takes care of the rest.” This is, given our relatively high taxes and our history with private philanthropy, understandable. The role of private (family) and corporate foundations in the U.S. is much more prevalent and also very remarkable in the social innovation space.

What is the biggest challenge you have come across in your career so far and how did you overcome it (if you have yet)?

One of the biggest challenges in my career was probably that I have a rather nonlinear resume. I never thought of it as being problematic, since for me, my personal and professional decisions always made sense. But then, I once was in a situation that made me realize that from the outside, my CV must seem like a wild patchwork that spans sectors and positions: from philanthropy to management consulting to politics to re-insurance to academia to humanitarian action to startup-life to social entrepreneurship. The moment I realized that was during a job interview, when a recruiter asked me, “Why have you been on the move so much? Do you find it hard to commit to something; what are you running away from?”

I had to learn to embrace the nonlinear nature of my resume, since it is a mirror of who I am: somebody dynamic; somebody interested in many different things, different cultures, and different people. But I admit, it took me some work and coaching to find the clear line through my experiences, and to shift the perception from “not sure what she wants, not wanting to commit, always on the run from something” to “lifelong learner, constantly looking for where I can have the greatest impact leverage, always trying to connect the dots.”

It also helped that more and more organizations have started looking at nonlinear career paths as an asset in recruitment and focused on diverse experiences and personal networks. In a startup that I co-founded, I specifically focused on putting together a team of people with such nonlinear career paths: it’s where the former baker meets the former banker that innovations are born.

This reminds me of articles (BND and Forbes) I have read showing that millennials and Gen Z are much more likely to bounce around from job to job than previous generations—for many reasons, including those you’ve mentioned for yourself. As a professor, what do you think that educators can do to support and prepare upcoming students for a career in which they may pursue many different jobs/opportunities, potentially in a nonlinear path?

I believe that for students who are in their twenties now, it’s becoming more of a standard to have nonlinear CVs and to explore multiple industries and work environments in order to find the work that matches their life (for a certain time…). This job-hopping is grounded in the idea (that is oftentimes seen as characteristic for Gen Z) that the job you do has to match the life you want to lead, rather than the other way around. Whereas people used to organize their lives around a job (e.g., moving to other countries, choosing for one parent to stay at home), the situation in the future will more often be the opposite: jobs will be shaped around the lives that people want to lead (e.g., remote work, part-time work, flexible working hours).

In the future “…jobs will be shaped around the lives that people want to lead..”

So, as educators, we can support and prepare upcoming students for this kind of work life by teaching the basic skills in our specialization area (in my case, giving them a toolkit on how to build a social startup), but focusing more on teaching the necessary future skills. “Future skills” are competencies that allow individuals to solve complex problems in various situations and highly emergent contexts. They are based on cognitive, motivational, or social resources, including emotional intelligence, curiosity, critical thinking and resilience.

What is the most rewarding experience you have had in your career so far, or the most rewarding part of the work you do?

I am very grateful to say that I have many rewarding experiences daily in my job as a professor when I see the amazing ideas that my students come up with in the Social Innovation courses that I teach. I guess this goes for rewarding moments in general: it’s the moments when you realize that what you do has a positive effect on people’s lives.

In my previous work for our social impact startup, Social Impact Partners, we would work with local communities and partner organizations like the UN World Food Programme or CARE International in Senegal, Gambia, Mauretania, Vietnam, and Kenya on protecting people’s livelihoods through micro-insurance or Social Impact Bonds. This work was very rewarding in the sense that you could quickly see the direct impact on human lives. For example, we introduced an (micro-)insurance scheme for what people would build their lives on: cattle, rice, coffee, etc.

Coming back to my nonlinear CV and connecting the dots: I find that the most rewarding moments are when knowledge and experiences from very diverse sectors come together to find innovative solutions to challenges that have not been solved before.

As Lisa shared, she loves to connect dots—ideas, people, sectors—that wouldn’t ordinarily be connected. At Global Ed Leadership, our writers often connect innovation and technology, social entrepreneurship, and global education—three sectors that are distinct, yet very much interwoven. Lisa’s career path and work highlights the many possibilities for discovering and forming links between these sectors and others, and can serve as inspiration for our readers to seek out innovative connections in their own work, and to support their students and mentees in preparing for nonlinear, sector-crossing careers.

Next steps for Lisa include staying in touch with the University of San Diego, developing her Social Innovation curriculum, establishing Germany’s first Social Innovation incubator for welfare organizations, and experiencing her daughter’s first day of kindergarten.

Thank you to Lisa for sharing her time and wisdom with us!

Eva Koelzer

Graduate Student, MA Peace and Justice

LinkedIn: /in/evakoelzer

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.