What It Takes To Be a Social Entrepreneur—an Interview With Melanie TranRead All Posts
Melanie Tran, founding member of AbilityMade and a 2017 YouthActionNet Fellow, joined a cohort of seven other seasoned social entrepreneurs to co-design and deliver an innovative, FREE, online short course called Voices of Social Change. During the five-week course, which starts February 24 and is available through the end of 2020, participants will receive inspiration, insight, and the opportunity to connect with a community of changemakers.
"When there's a cause that's close to your heart," Melanie says, alluding to the cutting-edge work being done by AbilityMade in the disability sector, "it doesn't feel like a job that you have to do." Below, Melanie discusses the important role empathy, community, and lifelong education have played throughout her journey as a social entrepreneur.
You once wrote that empathy is your “core value.” What does that mean for you as a social entrepreneur and user experience (UX) designer?
To me, empathy is about process, not just outcome. As a UX designer, it’s easy to start a project knowing exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it. But sometimes it’s about stepping back because the solution will only be impactful if it’s designed and developed with the users in mind. They need to be involved in the process, in shaping the solution based on their real challenges. None of that can happen without empathy.
Based on your experience, what challenges do young social entrepreneurs face?
Social entrepreneurs are always stepping into the unknown—being innovative and creative, and taking risks. From a funding perspective, you’re always living on the edge. It’s a challenge to find the right investors who believe in your product or solution, share your values, and are willing to take a risk and invest. Finding the next round of funding is a constant process—almost like a race, and you need to keep running to be sustainable.
Sometimes, being a social entrepreneur is lonely—not everyone understands the purpose or value of the work you do. It can make a big difference being around people who understand and believe in what you’re doing. The more stories you hear, the more you learn and grow as a person, the better able you are to see how your work connects to create change and impact.
What does ‘social inclusion’ mean, and why does it matter in the social development world, and elsewhere?
Before I was immersed in the social impact world, I’d have said social inclusion was making sure people with disabilities are included—in products, services, and solutions. Now, I see social inclusion as much, much more than that. It goes beyond disability—it’s about religion, gender, culture, education, and everything that makes us unique individuals. It’s important because the most impactful solutions are created by people who understand diverse needs and challenges—often by people who themselves are end users. If inclusion isn’t valued, think of how much talent will be missed, how many people with passion and potential won’t be discovered. To me, that seems tragic.
What role has education played in your career journey?
When I went to university, I decided to go part time. It took longer, yes, but I was able to study and work at the same time in the field I was passionate about, immersing myself in the industry and leveraging all the resources around me. When I graduated, I had a wealth of experience under my belt. My educational experience shaped me as a social entrepreneur, a designer, and a person working in the social inclusion sector. Before I started my studies, I saw design as just being about functionality and aesthetics. But education changed my perception, it taught me one simple concept that I now use as a guiding principle in my work—design goes far beyond functionality and aesthetics. It is also about how we can leverage the power of creativity to create positive social change and impact.
Education never stops. It’s goes way beyond the institution, the certificate, or the fellowship. Everything—life itself—is educational.