Impact Istanbul (5): Looking for Youth

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Mini-Series: Impact Istanbul features conference highlights, round-ups, interviews, Q&A’s, and speaker profiles. It is part of our International Business Forum 2013 live coverage. This time, Apolline Nassour asks: Do youth have a voice in shaping the future of inclusive businesses?

A snapshot of some of the young attendees at IBF 2013.

Student Reporter / Apolline Nassour

A snapshot of some of the young attendees at IBF 2013.

International conferences, especially those focusing on business, often hold endless talks about youth – as a market, as future employees, or as stakeholders. Yet most of the time, you’ll rarely find actual young people invited to participate.

Yet at 16th International Business Forum this week in Istanbul, young people were everywhere. And from everywhere.

For example, you might have run into Ghita, a 28 year-old Franco-Moroccan who works for UNEP (United Nations Environment Program). Or Giulio, a 27 year-old Italian who works for an NGO that builds sustainable mud houses in West Africa. Or Anjuli, the 28 year-old Indian who works as Communication Director for the firm GreenLighting Planet. Or Joris, a 23 year-old Belgian who was simply looking for an internship in the green sector.

There were dozens more, and their origins, educational backgrounds and professional positions differed tremendously. The only link between them, except the fact they are all under 30, is their common interest for social and environmental issues.

“There are more young people than expected, and this is a good thing,” says Merron Pillart, an Ethiopian social entrepreneur who came to the conference with two young colleagues from Kenya. Together, they sell solar kiosks providing electricity to off-grid villages in the Horn of Africa.

Astrid Denker, who has twenty years of experience advising green projects, notes that this phenomenon is quite recent. “This has been a trend for the last five years” she says. “Young people have been more and more involved in those kind of projects.”

Felix Oldenburg, Europe Leader and Director Germany for Ashoka, a global organization that identifies and supports leading social entrepreneurs, disagrees slightly.

He points out the fact that in Germany for example, the proportion of youth volunteering has been stable for decades (around one-third of youth). “The question is, what do they volunteer in?” he asks. This is what’s actually changing. Fewer youth opt for “old school” adult or institution-led commitments, like Boy Scouts. Instead, they are more interested in individualized volunteering – in other words, they want to make their own rules, and create their own models for getting involved.

One remarkable individual who represents this trend is Irish computer programmer James Whelton, the youngest social entrepreneur to become an Ashoka fellow. At the age of 18, he co-founded Coder Dojo, a networks of clubs that aim to teach kids how to code (program) for free. Today, Whelton is 20 and his business has grown into a global network of 130 Dojos covering 22 countries.

“James Whelton had what it took at a very young age, for some people it takes longer,” explains Mr. Oldenburg. “His skills were a combination of three ingredients: empathy with team work, and leadership.”

Many say that youth is an “attitude” rather than a physical characteristic. If this is true, it is probably good news for our discussion. The fact that more and more youth are being trusted to take responsibility and lead initiatives or companies in the social sector shows that physical age may not be a discriminative criteria anymore.

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