Mastercard Spotlight: Tonya Surman Reinventing Social Innovation
What does social innovation mean to Tonya Surman? It means living life to create change, everyday. Tonya is a leading champion of social entrepreneurship, and co-founder and CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation, a launchpad for people to change the world. The center gives a home to over 700 unique organizations in Toronto and New York. Tonya is a social innovator, and through the creation of Community Bonds for her organization, she has transformed the way people think and fund not-for-profits.
Tonya Surman is one of Canada’s leading experts and champions of social entrepreneurship and is the co-founder and CEO of the Centre for Social Innovation, a social-mission coworking community located in Toronto and New York, which serves more than 700 organizations.
Tonya is an expert when it comes to the social entrepreneurship revolution; shifting models of sustainability; trends, challenges and opportunities for social entrepreneurs in Canada; and, what needs to be done to support and promote the success of Canadian social entrepreneurs.
To help social organizations overcome obstacles, Tonya co-founded the Centre for Social Innovation, which works to catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world, and is currently its CEO. She’s also the co-author of the book “The Community Bond: An Innovation in Social Finance” and was also named the Global Ashoka Fellow.
Q: Where does your passion for social innovation and collaboration come from? Tell us your story.
TS: Working in not-for-profit organizations, I was confronted over and over again with people reinventing the wheel and getting nowhere. I found this to be infuriating. My passion is driven by rage, by the frustration of people trying to do good, (of people) who care so deeply who are being confronted obstacle after obstacle, (and) who are trying to get their work to the next level. My drive is an unrelenting passion to do things differently.
Q: Can you explain what social innovation means?
TS: Social innovation is a really big umbrella and almost anything can happen. It’s the spirit of entrepreneurship applied to solving the problems that we face in the world. So much of entrepreneurship is about that energy, that initiative, that discontent, and that drive. Early on I knew that if I used the power of discontent and the power of my own creativity and the creativity of the incredible people I’ve had the pleasure of working with, we could redesign things.
Q: You have been leading the Centre for Social Innovation for over a decade. Is there a sector that’s lighting up the social entrepreneur/ innovation environment right now? What trends are you noticing?
TS: I think there’s lots of clusters. We are now five locations and serve closer to 800 or 900 organizations now. Our focus is very very broad. One of the things about innovation is you don’t know where the change is going to happen. Our work is increasingly focused on KPIs. This is a core trend – we’re moving from a 10,000 flowers blooming approach to one… focused on solving real-world problems. We’re seeing clusters around disabilities, climate, community health, and we’re starting to see clusters forming around poverty alleviation.
Q: What was causing people to not be able to move past the obstacles you mentioned?
TS: A lot our society sees money as an obstacle or barrier. In the not-for-profit sector where I come from, we always have to go to someone else for money. We spend a lot of our energy looking for money instead of creating a business model and the power of markets to make our own money.
Q: How can we best position Canada as a social innovation nation that creates meaningful solutions to pressing problems, while being growth-oriented?
TS: For me, money is about energy. It’s a way we’re able to exchange value with one another. If we’re able to understand our business models, and really truly lean into our value as creators… that creates a virtuous cycle. Think about applying that to the caring world and to the people who are trying to make the world better. It’s a transformation in our thinking, and I think that’s part of what social innovation is trying to do.
Q: How can we better merge the startup & social innovation communities to create transformational impact?
TS: The real magic we’re focused on, is how do you build social capital? Entrepreneurs love one another. We love working with each other – we need our mentors and we need our community. We build communities of people who care. We’re building ecosystems and platforms that allow people who are suppliers of entrepreneurs to also be a part of that community…. In the social networks we create, it only takes one simple simple email to be able to find the needle in the haystack that takes the project to the next level.
Q: Tonya, what is your biggest piece of advice to the startups listening today?
TS: If you’re asking permission, then you aren’t changing the world. What goes into life is being a co-creator of a better world with the people that you love.
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