Compass Fellowship

In December 2015, I had the opportunity to speak to Rebecca Ballard, Executive Director at the Compass Fellowship. As both of us are travelling nomads, we connected via Skype to talk about the program and Rebecca’s experience in the social enterprise sector.

Compass Partners was founded by Neil Shah and Arthur Woods who both worked on their first social ventures during college. They experienced first hand that “the university environment simply didn’t provide the support, knowledge or skills that they needed to succeed.” (website). Launched at Georgetown University in 2009, Neil and Arthur expanded to five schools in fall 2009, and doubled their program’s reach once more in the fall of 2011.

Introductory Session on Campus

Introductory Session on Campus

So what’s the program all about? The Compass Fellowship is the first and largest program in the U.S. using a mentorship-oriented approach to teaching social entrepreneurship on campuses. Applicants are first-year college students that want to launch a social venture and need support in doing so. Each participating campus has a Mentor team – older students with key entrepreneurial skill sets – that choose up to 15 participants each year. Once accepted into the program, Fellows

  • Take part weekly in the Fellowship’s curriculum through guest lectures, off-campus trips or group activities,
  • Create a venture through learning modules in personal growth and business skills
  • Benefit from mentorship through the Mentor team and – when necessary – external adviser
  • Have the opportunity of joining a regional Boot Camp to fine tune their ventures
  • Attend Shift Series, the annual national conference which gives all fellows the opportunity to present in front of a larger audience.

“The Compass Fellowship is different in that it is student-created and student-led. Each level of the organization – from Mentor teams to our National Council – is made up of students and alumni who have proven to be exceptional social entrepreneurs and want to give back to the ones who come after them. We take Fellows through extensive social entrepreneurship training and many stay on as peer-mentors for the next cohort(s).” Rebecca explains. “In focusing on first-year college students we hope to ingrain a values-oriented entrepreneurial mindset that is based on living consciously, participating proactively, committing unreasonably, and thinking adventurously.” The Fellowship’s is run on the basis of four fundamental teaching approaches:

  1. The N+1 Model: Each participant is guided by a mentor that is one step ahead, as Fellows or mentors within the organization.
  2. Experiential Learning: In small groups, learning modules and one-on-one mentor sessions, Fellows learn, observe, reflect and test.
  3. Differentiated Instruction: Part of the curriculum revolves around personal development to help Fellows recognize their values, strengths and weaknesses, to develop a plan for their future that fits their personality. Instead of classroom instruction typical for the university environment, Fellows engage in long-term relationships and discussions with their peers and mentors to foster their personal development.
  4. Student-based community: The program is run by students for students to create common ground for learning and collaboration.

As of 2016, the Compass Fellowship is active at twelve schools all across the US. To expand their program, Compass looks for

  • Universities that prove a campus-wide commitment to social innovation and impact
  • Students at those universities who embrace social innovation and entrepreneurship to tackle social challenges
  • Support of the university’s faculty and administration
  • Financial Commitment from the university ($40,000) and Fellows.

One of the highlights of the fellowship year is Shift Series – a two-day summit discuss socially conscious leadership of the next generation with students and alumni from leading national universities, social and tech entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and corporate executives. Compass Fellows have the opportunity to pitch their ventures and receive feedback from their peers and experts.

Workshop time

Introducing the Compass Fellowships mantra

I think it is incredible that Compass has scaled to a dozen schools across the US in six years thanks entirely to passionate and engaged volunteer mentors. I can only imagine what a strong network of social makers and shakers they have built up over the years. What I appreciate most about Compass’ approach – beyond this impressive community – is that they work with individuals during their “formative years” at college. Compass opens students’ minds to what it can mean to be an entrepreneur. In graining a socially entrepreneurial mindset this early-on, Fellows not only become aware of their role as change makers, but can tailor their university education according to their experiences and aspirations. While passion is not in short supply among first-year college students, I can’t help but wonder how structured and organized a program runs when led by students. Maybe I’ll come across a Compass Fellow some day and find out what it really looks like behind the scenes.