GreenHouse in a time of Pandemic

Tuesday, April 28, 2020
by Susan Fish
Collage of presentation

Collage of the six social ventures that pitched in the first online Social Impact Showcase.

As an innovation community, GreenHouse is in constant evolution. It’s always finding ways to be more impactful in meeting the needs of the social innovators and entrepreneurs it serves. So, when March rolled around and GreenHouse suddenly had to make the entire incubator a virtual one, it offered another opportunity to make changes.

The team at GreenHouse reflected on the initial transition for students and the program as the team embarks on a Spring term that looks different than envisioned.

“Finding meaning and doing meaningful work has always underpinned what GreenHouse is all about,” says GreenHouse Director Tania Del Matto, “In times of incredible change where much is out of our students’ control, having a sense of meaning is hugely important for wellbeing and creates a sense of agency for our students.”

 Many have found more time to invest in their social ventures as they find ways to address the needs of their communities, while others have volunteered.  For example, a former student now working in the corporate sector has begun to volunteer with Kids Help Phone, as a meaningful way to contribute to the higher demand for mental health support.

GreenHouse students are also living out much of what they’ve learned in coaching sessions. Brendan Wylie Toal, GreenHouse Program Manager, says,

”When we coach students, we ask for three mindsets: initiative, perseverance and appreciation for lifelong learning. What’s happened in the last few weeks has really stressed that second quality.” As an example of this, Brendan points to one student in his SVENT 325 course who proposed how she would achieve the course goals at the beginning of the term, only to have the pandemic change her course of actions three different times. “I was really impressed at her ability to refocus.”

Similarly, Anne Filion, GreenHouse’s Design and Innovation Coordinator, says,

“When I talk to students, I often say constraints are a good thing because they define the box in which you work. It can be frustrating for them, but it also offers scoping. Right now, they might say they can’t do something because they can’t be close to people physically, but the goal is to find some other way to reach the same outcome”. Anne points to a student team whose pre-existing design for tracking health symptoms could be adapted to be extremely useful in this time. In her coaching, Anne is reminding students, “Understanding the complexities of problems helps us understand this new reality as another complexity we have to take into account in our work.”

The coaches themselves have had to take into account this new reality in their own work. For Brendan, this involves taking tutorials online, allowing students to be self-directed in their learning. This will allow students to access GreenHouse training from anywhere, and to work through the content at their own pace. It also frees up more of his time for actual coaching.

Anne continues to run a youth innovation program, but has had to adapt it for online sessions, developing online learning tools and figuring out how to best support student groups. Now that they are through the initial adjustment phase, she says it is actually enhancing the program.

On another front, after years of running the Social Impact Showcase as an in-person, end of term event where students pitch their ventures, this too had to change. This April, the Showcase was delivered online with six ventures submitting their video pitches. The voting for the People’s Choice award was conducted online and resulted in over 1,100 people casting their vote for most impactful venture, vastly exceeding the engagement and reach of any in-person Showcase event.   

Perhaps the final surprise of this shift has been the resilience of the GreenHouse students. The coaches acknowledge that while many people have the opinion that resilience is low among today’s students and entitlement is high, that has not been their experience. In fact, Anne says, “I am very proud of our students.  The first years who were dropped into new environment and then pulled out very quickly have adapted and excelled, accepted what is going on and are trying to make things work. Others were looking for jobs or were farther along in their ventures. I see how their positivity and ability to say ‘this isn’t going to stop us’ has helped themselves and us.” Brendan adds, “The quality of the work we have gotten from students at this time really shocked me. This group is better at transitioning than many of my peers. A lot of these younger folks already have a lot of their lives online, but they are still some pretty resilient individuals.”

Greenhouse staff

The GreenHouse team conducting drop-in socials on Mondays at 1PM via Webex.