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Institute for Social Innovation


Tim Zak


Director, Institute for Social Innovation

All people are entrepreneurs but many don’t have the opportunity to find that out. Muhammad Yunus, Founder, Grameen Bank and Nobel Laureate

Established in 2006 and housed at the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Social Innovation (ISI) is a multi-disciplinary institute providing CMU students, faculty, and researchers with a variety of applied learning opportunities to design, prototype, and launch financially sustainable ventures, projects, and policy initiatives for social good. In addition, the ISI conducts applied research to generate new insights that advance the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship. These activities are reinforced by CMU’s interdisciplinary and analytical approach to problem solving, leverages the Heinz College’s expertise and influence in technology, policy, and management, and supports the College's mission of “educating men and women for intelligent action.”

The Institute for Social Innovation supports social innovatin and entrepreneurship at CMU in five areas:

  • Inspire: Globally renowned thought leaders, impact investors, and practitioners in social innovation and entrepreneurship are brought to campus for the ISI Speakers Series, guest lectures, and other events
  • Integrate: The ISI has established partnerships with a number of CMU-affiliated social ventures, corporations, impact investors, government agencies, and other related social innovation organizations. In addition, the ISI sponsors the university’s annual Social Innovation Solutions Challenge and organizes social innovation activities during CMU’s Global Entrepreneurship Week
  • Incubate: A variety of fellowships and connections to social innovation incubators and accelerators are available for Heinz College and other CMU students and alums interested in pursuing social innovation ventures and initiatives outside the classroom

Our students have gone on to launch a number of globally recognized social ventures and assume leadership positions in organizations such as Ashoka, Echoing Green, and USAID.

The ISI is directed by Professor Tim Zak who has spent nearly 30 years leading global organizations, advising executives in the public, private, and social sectors, and speaking to social innovation audiences around the world.

Faculty Spotlight

Tim Zak is an Associate Teaching Professor at the Heinz College and Director of CMU's Institute for Social Innovation

Learn More about Tim Zak

Social Innovation @ CMU

CMU is perfectly positioned to address social challenges—learn more about university resources in this area

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What is Social Innovation?

Although social innovation and entrepreneurship as a recognized discipline has been around for decades there continue to be debates about what it is and how it differs from just “entrepreneurship”. One widely cited definition describes social innovations as having at least three characteristics:

  1. Novel (not necessarily a new) solution to a social problem
  2. More effective, efficient, or sustainable (financially and perhaps environmentally) than existing solutions
  3. The value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals

Social entrepreneurship, then, can be thought of as the act of creating, building, and managing an organization launched as a result of a breakthrough social innovation.

Social enterprises are customarily thought of in the context of nonprofit/NGO organizations and defined as “an income-generating venture providing a nonprofit with unrestricted funds that also enhances the organization’s core mission.”  The earned income (profit but also known as “surplus”) from these ventures is used at the nonprofit’s discretion to meet the needs of constituents and lessen its reliance on traditional forms of funding.