Besides a lot of creative energy, young people bring valuable skills to the table – particularly digital and social networking capabilities. This can be great boon to any growing enterprise. But only a small proportion of high school students around the world have access to entrepreneurship education, let alone education in social entrepreneurship. When young people finish school, they should be more aware of entrepreneurship as a career opportunity and they should know what steps to take if they want to start a business.

Private-public partnerships that provide for interaction between schools and the business community may be instrumental in closing the gap between a traditional academic curriculum and the skillset necessary to launch a successful start-up. Social Innovation Relay (SIR), a global initiative run by international educational organization Junior Achievement, challenges high school students to develop innovative business concepts that address social needs. Student teams from all over the world are paired with corporate volunteers from Hewlett Packard who act as mentors and help teams turn their concepts into viable business projects.

A jury selects the three best concepts – those that stand a real chance of becoming profitable ventures in their respective communities. In 2014 a group of four secondary school students from Kenya developed the winning concept, an affordable mosquito trap to reduce the incidence of malaria in the country. Such mentorship programs have a proven positive impact on participants and their motivation to start real social enterprises in the future.

According to Warwick University’s Centre for Education and Industry, which evaluated the impact of the Social Innovation Relay in 2013, 78 percent of participating students are now more confident of their ability to start a social enterprise, 86 percent are more aware of what social issues exist in their own community and 84 percent are more aware that social and business objectives can be complementary. At least ninety percent improved their communication, motivation, critical thinking and teamwork skills.

Drawing on the four-year experience of running the Social Innovation Relay, we have identified the most important factors that maximize the impact of this kind of initiative:

  • Draw young people’s attention to real problems in their communities, because these are things they know and care about. This motivates them to learn and apply their skills.
  • Ensure access to corporate mentors from large companies who are knowledgeable about business, management and marketing techniques necessary to get a social enterprise off the ground.
  • Maximize the wow factor for young people by using IT in interesting ways.
  • Most of young people participating in the program are social media and IT savvy, but they need more coaching to help them apply those social media skills to their business projects.

It is not enough just to help young people identify unmet needs in their communities and develop business plans. Access to funding is a crucial issue for all entrepreneurs, and an even greater issue for social entrepreneurs from developing countries. To address this problem, Junior Achievement partnered with the Singapore-based Pwee Foundation, which connects private investors and social entrepreneurs.

The Foundation is evaluating the best business ideas put forward by this year’s students to determine whether they will be able to attract investors and receive necessary funding. In the meantime, the shortlisted social innovation teams continue receiving mentorship and business coaching from the Pwee Foundation during the evaluation stage.

The working model of the SIR can be duplicated. The biggest challenges are scaling up the initiative and attracting more corporate volunteers to maximize its reach. These challenges can best be addressed by raising awareness of the positive impact of such programs on young people’s entrepreneurial potential, and their relatively low implementation costs. Programs such as SIR do not require educational system reforms or additional government spending.

Yet they are proven tools to spur social innovation among youth and equip them with a skillset that can help them make a difference in their communities.

Caroline Jenner is CEO of Junior Achievement – Young Enterprise Europe