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People, profit, planet

By Andy Lee

Teriano Lesancha

Teriano Lesancha, social work ’12, is empowering girls and women in Kenya through her charitable foundation SupaMaasai, based in the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University.

The following article is excerpted from the Winter 2014 Ryerson University Magazine. Read the full cover story, as well as a piece on how professor Henry Parada is fighting child exploitation in the Dominican Republic, and more at: www.nxtbook.com/dawson/ryerson/alumni_2014winter.

“Pamoja!” cry 20,000 young students packed inside Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on an unseasonably humid school day in late September. The conductor of the rallying chorus – meaning “together” in Swahili – is a vibrant Maasai woman onstage sporting a Canadian-red blazer, skinny jeans and a brightly coloured beaded bracelet handcrafted in her remote village of Loodariak in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. “Pamoja, we can change the world!” she calls out into her wireless microphone: a feverish, high-pitched chant crescendoes around her. It’s a worthy mantra for We Day, the massive youth activism event (organized by Free The Children and co-sponsored by Ryerson University) that has gathered them here.

“Education was never part of my future,” Teriano Lesancha, Social Work ’12, tells the wide-eyed youth corps. “I had to fight for it.” A crisply edited video shares her life story on multiple LED screens. Born “booked” for marriage at 14 to a man nearly thrice her age, Lesancha prevailed in not only convincing her father to forgo a handsome dowry of five cows to send her to high school, but also to sell his last calf so she could attend Ryerson. When Lesancha’s sponsor funding fell through, sociology professor Jean Golden rustled up scholarships and helped raise money for her annual international tuition. With the help of the Ryerson community, Lesancha became the first university graduate from Loodariak, a place without running water or, until just last year, electricity. To this day, Lesancha’s parents call Golden and President Sheldon Levy her second mother and father. “When you have people who believe in you, it changes everything,” she says.

Believing she “was born to do something great,” Lesancha returned to Loodariak, rebuilt her father’s herd and started a charitable foundation to empower girls and women through education and entrepreneurship. Accepted as a startup in the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) at Ryerson, SupaMaasai (“supa” means “hello” in Maa, the Maasai language) has sent 50 teens to school and is building a women’s health centre, Internet café and beekeeping operation in Loodariak. “We cannot continue putting women down and expect our country to move forward,” says Lesancha. Through a partnership with the Ryerson International Experiential Learning (RIEL) program, SupaMaasai (with design assistance from graduating fashion students Eva Parrell and Kiersten Hay) is helping female artisans sell fair-trade, Maasai-inflected beaded clothing and accessories – like Lesancha’s bracelet – to western consumers, with all proceeds flowing into a local women’s community fund.

SupaMaasai is just one example of a larger movement at Ryerson – social innovation. The world is noticing. Two days prior to We Day, the university was named Canada’s first Changemaker Campus by Ashoka, a global network of social entrepreneurs, for its longstanding commitment to serving societal need. With the designation, Ryerson’s elite peers include Brown University, Cornell University, Boston College, Duke University and Dublin City University, among others. The evidence is everywhere on campus, from the Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility and the Centre for Voluntary Sector Studies (celebrating its 20th anniversary next year) to zone education and experiential learning via startup incubators like the DMZ, Student Design and Engineering Zone, Fashion Zone and Innovation Centre for Urban Energy (i-CUE). “You can’t learn surfing from a textbook,” says Wendy Cukier, vice-president, research and innovation, who spearheaded the Ryerson Changemaker steering committee. “Diversity is the foundation of innovation and you can achieve great things when you bring business, social work and communications students together with engineers and scientists to solve real-world problems.”

Recently, the Faculty of Community Services appointed social-change pioneers Ric Young and Marilyn Struthers as distinguished visiting professor and the inaugural John C. Eaton Chair in Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, respectively (the latter established in part by a $1-million gift from Eaton and his wife Sally Horsfall Eaton). Struthers defines social innovation as using new ideas to solve problems and achieve systemic change for public benefit, often through collaboration with diverse players. (While acknowledging its importance, some maintain a more holistic approach is required to alleviate large-scale oppression. “Education, health, nutrition and agriculture have to be pursued through major infusions of public funding to allow whole populations to be restored to a decent life,” says Stephen Lewis, humanitarian and distinguished visiting professor.) As government budgets shrink, entrepreneurs are stepping up as social catalysts. At the same time, businesses operating in an increasingly global village are realizing the importance of contributing to society.

“We see in this generation of young people that are in university now a renewed social conscience,” says Dave Valliere, chair of entrepreneurship and strategy in the Ted Rogers School of Management. “These students really want to make the world a better place and they’re looking for whatever tools work.” In today’s era of unprecedented technological change, those tools are shifting from acquired knowledge to the ability to innovate. “The promise of social innovation education is to equip students to not just adapt to change but actually drive and lead change,” says Michele Leaman, director of Ashoka Changemaker Campus. “And so Ryerson is really still very much on the cutting edge.”

The Winter 2014 issue of Ryerson University Magazine is being mailed to alumni and is also available online. Alumni who receive the publication by mail now have the option to receive the digital edition by email instead. If you are interested in this green option, complete the form to receive your next edition via email.

Ryerson University Magazine is published twice a year and an e-newsletter is distributed to alumni four times annually. If you're a Ryerson graduate but don't receive the magazine or @lumni enewsletter, go to https://www.ryerson.ca/alumni/stay-in-touch/updateinfo/index.html to update your contact information, or call 1-866-428-8881.