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Searching for a Rare Breed of Leader — Are You a Changemaker?

How do we make progress as a society? How do we solve challenges and create a better life for more of us? We believe the answer lies with changemakers.
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At the TDM Foundation we aim to create positive impact by backing outstanding leaders who are committed to improving society. We call them changemakers.

In 2020, Professor Cynthia Breazeal (from MIT in the US) and Ethan Berman (from i2 Learning, a US-based education provider is focused on preparing students for their future world) became concerned about the growing impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) across every part of society. They saw the risks AI could pose, not only today but also for future generations. Despite AI’s many benefits they felt that, if not managed properly, it could greatly undermine life as we know it.

To address this challenge, Cynthia and Ethan decided to create an educational day, devoted to learning about AI for primary and secondary school students around the world. They called it Day of AI.

In developing Day of AI, Cynthia and Ethan wanted students to learn about everything from the basics of what AI is, to how it is created and critically, how to use it ethically. Their aim was for students to develop basic AI literacy that would equip them to navigate a world where every part of their lives will be impacted by AI. Just two years after launching the initiative, the program is already being taught in over 110 countries with 7,512 teachers participating.

The TDM Foundation works closely with Cynthia and Ethan to manage the program to Australian schools. Over the past two years, some 125,000 Australian students and around 1,000 teachers have registered to use the Day’s teaching materials.

What does it take to be a changemaker?

A changemaker is an outstanding leader who is committed to improving society.

Our definition of changemakers is heavily influenced by Ronald Heifetz, a world leading leadership expert from Harvard University. Ronald sees leadership as the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges. We love that in Heifetz’s definition, leadership is seen as an activity as opposed to being a position or a title. This is a critical distinction, as it effectively means that anyone can practice changemaking leadership.

For us, Cynthia and Ethan’s story demonstrates what it means to be a changemaker. They identified a problem, developed a clear vision on how to address it, and they’ve put this vision into action. To their credit, their Day of AI program is already on its way to helping students all over the globe better navigate the world of AI.

Being a changemaker is tough. It requires engaging a range of stakeholders with the solution, building groups of supporters, leading teams, being willing to take the heat when there is push back and being able to go the distance. Think of changemakers such as the 2023 Australian of the year Taryn Brumfitt or internationally, the Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, and you find leaders who are pushing back against deeply embedded gender norms in their societies, for the betterment of women and girls.

Why are changemakers so important?

Our belief in backing changemakers is linked, in part, to our work at TDM Growth Partners. One of the central theses at TDM Growth Partners is that a great company culture is critical to building successful and sustainable businesses. This is predicated on the belief that companies with great cultures perform better, as teams buy wholeheartedly into its vision, mission, values and beliefs. Leadership in this context is the ability to develop, communicate, and live the company’s culture.

In the social impact space, we look for organisations with great leaders and with a great culture, but we also look for something else, which in many ways is more important in the social impact space. We look for leaders who have a clear view of the change they want to create for a better world.

Elaborating on the Ronald Heifetz view, he sees leadership as the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges, where their beliefs and values will need to change so that they can thrive.

On the flip side, when leadership is defined this way, one can then see numerous examples, where although not having a title the person practices leadership. Taryn and Malala illustrate this point. Much of the impact they have had is where they haven’t held formal leadership positions.

This type of leadership requires courage and innovation and can be hard to get right. In democracies, governments, for example, typically find this type of leadership hard. Suggest an unpopular solution or try something new that doesn’t work, and a government can be voted out. Similarly, in for profit business, although social license is important, corporate leaders are ultimately tasked with making money for their shareholders, not creating social impact.

In contrast, social impact leaders can step into the space and try to lead bravely. Private long-term capital can give them the time and freedom to thread new ideas into a commonly accepted social tapestry.

It’s easy to see then, why Cynthia and Ethan are changemakers. They have engaged teachers and students effectively, they are educating them to understand the technology and not be fearful of it and to understand its benefits and costs. They understood that although governments do good work educating students, there was a growing gap to be filled in educating students and teachers about this revolutionising technology. So they rolled up their sleeves and got to work on a solution.

We believe backing change makers is critical so we can rise to the challenges we face not only today but tomorrow. It’s why we are trying to find more Cythnia’s and Ethan’s.

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