Combine Social Change and Entrepreneurship at Tulane’s Changemaker Institute

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By Selene Angier
Last updated on August 11, 2023

Based in Tulane’s Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking, the Changemaker Institute social venture accelerator is an experiential resource for grad students who want to turn their civic entrepreneurship business ideas into solutions. 

Tulane University

Three volunteers stand in a row outside a water donation table in New Orleans and count water bottles

What do a mindfulness app, prisoner reintegration, and opera music all have in common? They were social change venture projects spearheaded by graduate students at Tulane University’s Changemaker Institute.

Based in the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking, the social venture accelerator is an experiential resource for grad students who want to turn their civic entrepreneurship business ideas into solutions. 

Who qualifies as a changemaker? Tulane defines changemakers as “people who use their skills, expertise, gifts, and power in a way that creates positive social change and affirms the humanity of all people. Changemakers have the freedom, confidence, and societal support to address any social problem and drive change.”

No community-minded idea is off limits. From malaria studies at the Saudi-Yemeni border to community doula programs in New Orleans, Changemaker Institute (CI) students tackle problems and create solutions near and far. All graduate students are welcome to apply, and while public health majors make up a number of candidates, students come from a range of disciplines including biomedical engineering, social work, business, finance, software development, epidemiology, English, art, neuroscience, environmental studies, law, and history.

Positive Change and Purpose in New Orleans

Tulane University — ranked #44 on U.S. News & World Report’s 2023 National Universities list — is located in New Orleans, a southern US city known for its joyous atmosphere, music, art, food, history, architecture, and tourism. Tulane offered the first tropical medicine program in the US and was also one of the first universities to establish a Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE) minor, a common program track for CI students. 

The university is also ranked #2 in the US for Service Learning and the #34 Most Innovative School (U.S. News & World Report, 2022) — and the Taylor Changemaker Institute is one of the main reasons why. Established in 2009 and named one of just 23 Ashoka Changemaker campuses in the country, CI is committed to hands-on, experiential learning, helping students gain real-world skills in business development and project management while creating real change. 

Community partnerships are also an important part of the Changemaker mission; local nonprofit organizations and businesses provide mentorship and development resources, or even become the beneficiary of a CI venture. Area experts and community leaders — from lawyers to business entrepreneurs to accountants and doctors — are heavily involved in the program as speakers, mentors, and consultants. 

Prepare to be challenged, develop professionally, mentally, and spiritually, and most importantly, gain a family in the process. CI provides a unique blend of innovators and people willing to stand for a purpose they would defend with their lives. CI is truly a prominent, life-changing experience.” — Tyler Jackson, Master of Public Health, 2022

Developing Real-World Skills, Creating Real Social Change

Tulane graduate students typically apply to the Changemaker Institute in the fall, often as part of a two-to-three-person team, outlining their social venture idea in the form of a written pitch. CI typically takes on five to eight projects per session led by up to 12 master’s and PhD students.

In the spring, the real work begins. The weekly curriculum creates a step-by-step foundation to bring the social enterprise to life — from research development and a focused mission statement to marketing plans and a capstone presentation in May to close the semester. 

Week by week, CI staff, faculty, mentors, and experts from the community guide students to develop their project vision. Assigned mentors work with students one-on-one to create a Lean Canvas and a Growth Wheel, a 30-60-90 day action plan that works through every facet of the business idea, including developing the concept, how to build a people-first organization, establishing the operations process, and branding and marketing plans. 

Working with a mentor in the brick-by-brick approach brings an expert sounding board, flexibility, and agility to the process, allowing the project to change over the course of the semester. “And that’s for the better,” says Margot Habets, co-founder of Trash to Treasure, a student volunteer-based organization that diverts landfill-bound items from dorms and resells them the following semester, with proceeds donated to New Orleans-area nonprofits. 

“The Changemaker Institute asks you all the questions you never asked yourself,” says Habets in a video profile from Tulane’s Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. “[CI] really made you think about every single little detail and whether your idea was feasible, and many people changed their ideas. We changed our plan a billion times, and we probably wouldn’t have been successful unless we had been asked those questions.”

Watch a profile about Trash to Treasure >

While scheduling and program topics can vary year to year, the curriculum lineup for spring 2023 includes:

  • Week 1: Design Research Analysis & Synthesis; Value Proposition

  • Week 2: Building Your Lean Canvas 

  • Week 3: Selecting Your Business Entity Classification; Tackling Heropreneurship 

  • Week 4: Cohort Feedback

  • Week 5: Mission & Vision

  • Week 6: Funding Your Venture/Applying for Funding 

  • Week 7: Prototype Debrief & Budget

  • Week 8: Branding

  • Week 9: Marketing

  • Week 10: Crafting Your Pitch  

  • Week 11: Create “Values” and “About Us” Statements; Meet with Marketing Consultant 

  • Week 12: Pitch Practice

  • Week 13: CI Showcase

  • Week 14: Debrief/Synthesis & Resources Moving Forward

Teddy Nathan launched Network Voluntours through CI. The New Orleans-based group organizes customized and niche volunteer experiences for nonprofits and companies across the country. 

“Prior to joining the Changemaker Institute, Network Voluntours was just an idea. It was just a conversation, it wasn’t real yet. Nothing had been put on paper, nothing had been organized,” Nathan said in a recent Changemaker Institute profile video. “After the Changemaker Institute, it felt official — we felt ready to go to work. We started recruiting [volunteer] groups right away. We were then able to start piloting services.”

Twelve years later, Network Voluntours is now expanded to 17 states and has made an estimated $10.5 million philanthropic impact, thanks to more than 46,000 volunteers. 

Social Change at Work from Changemaker Alums

Data analytics software, mental health apps, organic farms, green jobs training, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) art therapy programs have all been developed at the accelerator. 

A few social change venture highlights from the last 14 years: 

  • Healthy Corner Store Collaborative: a food desert program dedicated to increasing access to fresh and healthy food (especially fruits and vegetables). 

  • REEP Now: an advocacy nonprofit committed to providing pro-bono parole support.

  • Birthlight: a community doula program to support Black New Orleans women through pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.

  • Operanauts: music-based program and opera events to heal traumatized communities in the Congo.

  • Radical Grandma Collective: an environmental justice ecommerce website that sells scarves, accessories, and bags made by Thai women. 

Anoop Jain (Master of Public Health, 2013) credits the Changemaker Institute with being an important catalyst in getting his organization, Humanure Power, now Sanitation Health Rights International (SHRI), off the ground. 

“Changemaker helps you really think through your idea,” Jain said in a Changemaker video profile. “Experts from the New Orleans community come in to work with students, helping them develop either a mission statement, vision statement … business plans, and really think through all the things that are needed to build a strong organization that’s going to have as much impact as possible.” 

Read more about Changemaker graduate Anoop Jain

Ready to Make an Impact?

If you consider yourself engaged, empathetic, creative, driven, and collaborative — and are planning to apply to graduate schools in the US — then Tulane and the Changemaker Institute may be the perfect fit for you. 

Social justice, heropreneurship, cause advocacy, social environmental issues, volunteerism, social entrepreneurship, activism, civic engagement, service learning — the opportunities (and potential solutions) at the Changemaker Institute are limited only by your imagination.

Shorelight counselors can help you apply to one of the following graduate tracks at Tulane and make your dream of studying in the USA come true:

  • Master of Public Health

    • Epidemiology*

    • Health Policy*

    • International Health and Sustainable Development*

    • Social, Behavioral, and Population Sciences

  • Master of Science in Biostatistics*

  • Master of Science in Public Health

    • Environmental Health Sciences*

  • Master of Science in Tropical Medicine*

Which social change project will you pursue?

Earn your master’s at Tulane University

* STEM-designated