BIG TABLE: Harnessing the Power of Global Youth

This week enso & TOMS convened a diverse group of leaders in New York City at the TOMS Showroom for a conversation about the opportunity — and need — to mobilize the world’s young people in service of positive social impact. Nearly half the world’s population are under the age of 25, and in the context of this week’s UN General Assembly meeting in New York, one year on from the announcement of the Global Goals, it’s clear that young people are critical to significant progress.

We know these are the most connected, globally aware generations ever, and there’s an opportunity for companies and organizations to work with young people, rather than just work for them. Many young people are already motivated by, and engaged in, active solutions to the world’s challenges; there’s a role for organizations to work with that existing energy, and a role to convert latent energy into active participation. This conversation focused on what we’re collectively learning about how to do it effectively.

Key themes that emerged from the table:

  • A desire for solutions. This generation is less frightened of change than previous generations, and is hungry for practical solutions that can make an impact. There’s broad awareness of the depth and breadth of challenges faced, and in that context, empathy and urgency. Young people today are asking less, ‘what job do I want?’, and more, ‘what problem do I want to help solve?’. Organizations can effectively work with this energy by creating new solutions, and amplifying existing solutions that young people are already engaged in.
  • Authenticity is key. For a company or organization to engage young people in action, authenticity is a fundamental precursor. This should come from the leaders down: where leaders are visible, it should be clear that they live the values their organizations represent. But it doesn’t mean being perfect — to err is human — it means sharing why choices have been made, and being transparent with what’s going right, and what’s not.
  • Start with values. Any actions encouraged by organizations need to clearly stem from values. There was a good discussion about the role of values in organizations, from acting as a hiring filter, to guiding the brand, to prioritizing resources and decision making. Focusing on the why rather than the what is important to emotionally engaging employees as well as organizations’ external collaborators. Although the means and media of engaging with young people may change over time, values should endure.
  • Drive to action. Young people want to be part of a solution, not just raising awareness. ‘We are allergic to awareness without action’. Initiatives from organizations that only seek to spread awareness — disconnected from action — feel futile, and young people do not engage with them; equally, simple requests for money do not engage people in large numbers. What works: clearly identify the problem, then drive to a clear, immediate action.
  • Immediate action. The first action taken needs to be scaled as an easy entry point: it should take less than one hour of initial commitment. Engagement can scale from there, but a low barrier to entry is critical. Using data effectively is important to understand social dynamics, and what prompts and mechanisms are working.
  • Storytelling is a critical ingredient. An organization’s ability to tell stories is crucial to engaging young people, both internally and externally. Storytelling has the power to reorient and re-energize an organization, and the ability to inspire users and participants. Organizations need to be rigorous about finding the stories in what they’re doing, or their users are doing. Venmo, a peer to peer payment platform that’s scaled by engaging young people, considers every transaction between users a ‘payment story’. Too many organizations forget to tell even the big stories, let alone these micro stories.
  • Design in peer-to-peer engagement. Growth can (and should) be peer-to-peer, rather than just brand-to-people. When young people receive recommendations on a new service, or action, from friends, it brings immediate trust and credibility that outweighs any brand ratings or promotion. Peer-to-peer growth should be part of an initiative, product or service design (rather than just hoping an idea becomes viral).
  • Letting go of control. To foster values-driven actions to thrive internally, and externally, companies and organizations need to get comfortable with letting go of control. Support employees in creating actions that represent their values, which become the organization’s values — culture cannot be prescribed. Trust your users/ participants to carry the torch, giving them the tools and opportunities to take action in ways that suit them. KIND’s #kindawesome empowers people to take personalized action. Taco Bell’s Live Mas Scholarship did not look for prescribed achievements, instead encouraged people to help identify any ‘innovator, creator or dreamer’. The Venmo app has very light branding; what’s prioritized is the people involved in each transaction — it’s the participants that matter, the brand less so.
  • Inter-generational dialogue. Although the evening’s conversation focused on activating young people, there’s also real interest in — and a need for — connecting generations. In many ways, young people can ‘educate up’ by sharing their values, perspectives, stories (e.g., the world listens to Malala). There is a perspective that ‘this generation could be the most ageist ever’; whether or not that’s true, it’s clear that we need to build bridges between generations, facilitating dialogue and engagement around shared experiences.
Illustration by Nastia Kobrazenko

This last point is where we left the conversation: a common desire for more experiences that express our shared humanity. We hope these BIG TABLE dinners are a small way of doing exactly that; each one re-energizes us through the simple act of breaking bread, sharing and listening.

We’re grateful to such a wonderful group of people joining the BIG TABLE and sharing what they’re learning so generously, and for doing amazing, impactful work in the world.

We’re also grateful to all the young people from around the world who shared their vision of the future with our attendees. A huge thanks to Nastia Kobrazenko for her beautiful illustrations of these young people that adorned the room.

Attendees 
Amy Smith / TOMS
Christopher Keefe / Omidyar Network
Dana Rosenberg / KIND
Elizabeth Patella / Citi
Gabriela Arenas / Sesame Street
Gayle Troberman / iHeartMedia
Jason Nichols / enso
Jennifer Walker / Taco Bell Foundation
Jordan Glassberg / TOMS
Karen Goldfeder / DoSomething.org
Katie Hunt-Morr / Virgin Unite
Leslie Lewen / Seeds of Peace
Mari Nakano / UNICEF Innovation
Michael Vaughan / Venmo
Nancy Haitch / Helen Keller International
Piers Bradford / Project Everyone
Sean McNamara / enso
Sebastian Buck / enso
Shannon Mattingly / Facebook

Dinner by The Pixie & the Scout / Images by Rebecca Reed Photography