The Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) fosters community university partnerships that aim to promote the principles and practices of civic engagement and democracy.

Event Details

Sonal Shah Social Innovation Address

Thursday, 3rd of October 2013 (11:00 – 12:30) @ Siobhan McKenna Theatre, NUI Galway

Sonal Shah - Former White House Office Staff of Social Innovation and Civic Participation by Martina Gannon, CKI Intern

"Breaking Down Barriers: Real Social Change Requires Revolutionary Innovation".

The Community Knowledge Initiative(CKI) recently hosted a stimulating talk at NUI Galway on the 3rd October relating to Social Innovation with Sonal Shah, an economist and entrepreneur. Sonal has worked with both government, profit and non-profit organisations. Until recently Shah was also the Deputy Assistant to President Obama and Director of the first White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. As an ALIVE intern I was invited to attend to draw perspectives from the angle of how best to benefit ALIVE volunteering.

Sonal began her interactive session with us by explaining how she roused social innovation in the White House and intervened in their spending in this area. Her expertise is in social innovation, civic partnership and service learning-program and individuals. The White House branch that she ran sought to find existing social innovation their main aim being to find it, scale it and give it a voice. These challneges drove the fund that the White house was providing for social innovation which has since inflated greatly. From a governmental perspective they were guided by how they could identify social innovators. She also admitted that they had been spending the same way for the last thirty years in the social sector from the same budget. The overhaul of this system included prioritizing research on program outcomes and effectiveness and making a fund for data collection on existing innovation.

In relation to President Obama's contribution it all started during the financial crisis and they have successfully leveraged the presidents voice twenty eight times during the year to back their social innovation cause.

Examples of successful social innovation projects included Bridges academy in Kenya whereby $2 a day education has produced the fastest growing schools system in Kenya. In India cataracts surgeries were being performed at 10c per surgery resulting in 300,000 surgeries per year, the profits of which were being re-invested into their hospital. In the Middle East where there had been riots during elections a text system was produced to advise displaced families which areas were safe.

However, she reiterated that ideas could be simple and provided an example of a dad whose two nieces had struggled with maths. He armed himself with a video recorder and a blackboard, recorded explanatory classes and found it getting two million hits a day on youtube. A free innovative and global service for the good of others.

She concluded that social innovation means you have ability to change the world to beyond what you can currently see. She then set a challenge for every student in the room: ‘I challenge you to figure that out role for yourself'.

When I asked her how better we could motivate and recruit NUIG volunteers she replied: ‘I can't answer that' and went on to explain how each volunteering project was unique and required an individual, specific design, adding that a well-defined project was essential.

The lingering question to student volunteer motivation is: how best to appeal to NUIG's brightest to fire up social innovation in their university?

About Sonal Shah

Sonal has worked in government, business and the non-profit sectors. Until recently Shah was the Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the first White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation focused on investing in and scaling innovative models, leveraging technology, opening information in the social sector to solve some of the nation’s toughest challenges.

Before joining the White House, Shah led Google’s global development initiatives for its philanthropy,, focusing on leveraging technology and information to help the world’s poor. Prior to Google, Shah was a Vice President at Goldman Sachs, Inc. where she worked with the Chairman and CEO in developing and managing the firm’s environmental strategy.

Shah also has started and managed non-profits. She is the co-founder of an international non-profit, Indicorps, which offers fellowships for the Indian diaspora around the world to work on development projects in India. The fellowship invests in and builds the leadership of the diaspora to be able to solve problems even in the toughest of circumstances. Shah also helped set up the Center for Global Development, the leading development think tank in Washington DC, where she managed the daily operations and developed the policy and advocacy programs for the Center.

Lorraine McIlrath, Community Knowledge Initiative, says, “The National University of Ireland, Galway and the CKI are delighted to host Sonal and learn from her vast experiences of social innovation. Sonal has been an inspiration through her role with the Obama Administration and through private enterprises such as Google and will offer a fantastic opportunity for us to grapple with innovation in times of crisis. The Community Knowledge Initiative is committed to fostering community-university partnerships that aim to promote the principles & practices of civic engagement and democracy. Engaging with Sonal will strengthen our work”.

As part of this address, Sonal will talk about her pathway into a career in social innovation, what social innovation means to her and how to imbue within young people a sense of themselves as civic and social innovators.

For further information, please contact:

Lorraine McIlrath 0877682099