Our mission is to support social innovators as they tackle injustices, one problem at a time.

What We Do


We bring the world’s top social innovators to campus to inspire you.


We provide you with mentors, workshops, seed funding & workspaces.

The Social Innovation Initiative is a marriage of the discipline you learn in the university with a committment to public service.Holden Thorp, former Chancellor of UNC


We help you understand social problems so you can better address them.


What We Offer

Our model is a tangible example of UNC’s values in action – collaborative, cross-disciplinary, entrepreneurial, outward-looking, and – to paraphrase former UNC President Edward Kidder Graham – extends UNC’s reach to the borders of the state – and beyond. It provides social entrepreneurs at UNC – students, faculty, and staff – with the tools and the experience they need to succeed, including:

  • Robust capacity building workshops year-round;
  • World-class scholarship, research, classes, and data analytics;
  • Elite coaching and mentoring from seasoned entrepreneurs;
  • Dedicated co-working space in the heart of campus and in the community; and
  • Seed funding for ventures to develop minimally viable products and services.

Ideas to Impact

The U.S. faces daunting social, economic and environmental challenges. In North Carolina, eighteen percent of the population (fully 25% of our children) lives in poverty and food insecurity; seventeen percent lack health insurance; and anticipated effects of climate change will severely impact agriculture and infrastructure in the state. Yet we see a rising generation eager to attack these problems, willing to trade lucrative careers with established companies for more creative ones – particularly with start-ups – that embody their values.

The character of the UNC Social Innovation Initiative is defined by our commitments to the following:

1. Fighting Inequality: Public service is embedded in UNC’s founding mission, and it retains a central place in the world-class research and scholarship generated by many of our most highly respected departments and institutes. In 2014, UNC earned distinctions from the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for its exceptional levels of engaged scholarship, research and service – more than 1 million hours of service was dedicated to issues of public health, hunger, homelessness, immigration, education, immigration and the environment, among others. We believe our efforts to promote social innovation are contributing to a new sector of the economy in which social, financial, and environmental values are fully considered.

2. Linking Campus and Community: We utilize UNC’s networks and partnerships in the community not just in the state but around the world because we are committed to the principle that strong community voice is absolutely vital to addressing the world’s most pressing problems in a sustainable way. This helps our young entrepreneurs better understand social problems in their contexts as they blend academic and applied approaches. Community partners become part of the design of these innovations, from ideation to team formation and beyond. This connection between the campus and the community ensures innovative solutions are aligned with community priorities.

3. Partnering for Collective Impact: We are breaking down the silos within the University that separate entrepreneurship from advocacy and public policy and engaged learning, while also involving the community in our efforts to tackle inequality. Our approach weaves together the College of Arts and Sciences, the graduate and professional schools and Student Affairs, facilitating cross-disciplinary approaches to solving community challenges. This extends the reach of our programming to all corners of the campus. We build strategic alliances, connecting our innovators to the top experts in our area, expanding the collective intelligence they can draw on to generate real collective impact.

4. Creativity: The magnitude of the problems we face today is so great that it requires us to explore new ways of thinking and the design of creative solutions to effectively tackle these problems. Creativity is not just necessary for us to generate new ideas but it’s also a “zig zag” process that we can apply to question our assumptions, to unlock solutions to overcome obstacles along the way, and to cleverly take ideas to fruition.

5: Harnessing the Power of Diverse Teams: Research shows that diverse teams are able to think more creatively about social issues. We want people of all socio-economic backgrounds, personality and leadership types and those not traditionally represented in entrepreneurship, including women and minorities. We also believe that the best social and policy entrepreneurs are those who grew up within the communities they serve: they are intimately familiar with community challenges, and can become key community leaders. For this reason, we intentionally recruit students from these under-resourced communities.

Ideas to Impact

Our goal is to become an internationally renowned social innovation lab that incubates scalable solutions to the greatest social, environmental and economic challenges we face in the world. By embedding it within a research-intensive university with a strong history of public service such as UNC, we bring particular emphasis to solving the challenges most relevant to North Carolina. Our impact is focused on four core audiences:

1. Entrepreneurs: On an individual level, we are developing the entrepreneurial mindset and skills of a new generation, preparing them to tackle the greatest social, economic and environmental challenges of the 21st century. We are encouraging our students to seize the moment to launch ventures that successfully tackle urgent social problems, and in the process, we are equipping them with essential skills and life-long learning habits required for success in today’s hyper-competitive, global economy.

2. Ventures: We have made venture development a core component of our initiative. This forces us to move beyond abstract conversations about “thinking and acting like an entrepreneur,” because it requires our students to translate leading research from within the University into concrete action. Whether building LLCs or 501c3s, our students, faculty and staff are taking risks in the relatively safe confines of a university, attempting to scale companies that will have a measurable impact in the community.

3. Community: Our best social entrepreneurs start from a position of deep engagement in the world beyond the University. They understand the challenges facing our most under-resourced communities and populations either because they come from those communities or they are engaged with them. They draw upon the University’s rich history of public service and participatory research, tapping into the local partnerships the University has developed with communities over many decades on a wide range of issues. In our model, the community is key driver of social innovation – from ideation and team formation to strategy, program design and development.

4. University: Higher education is being challenged to rethink how to meet the expectations of the Millennials and Gen Z and how to prepare them to be competitive in an increasingly globalized economy, while also helping them to tackle the imposing challenges that our world faces in the 21st century. Our program fosters cross-disciplinary collaboration, blending entrepreneurship, advocacy and engaged learning, helping UNC fulfill its promise to help make the world a better place. The old status quo in higher education has been disrupted by new technology and labor market changes and shifting generational values. Our program positions Carolina at the forefront of this pivot in higher education.

Opportunities forSocial Innovation

Ventures page








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