Misan Rewane joins Stanford Impact Labs as our inaugural executive director. Misan (pronounced MIH-sahn) is a social entrepreneur and champion of community-led action and hypothesis-driven experimentation. She will lead day-to-day operations, including the investment process, innovations and partnerships, and education and training programs. Misan and our faculty director, Jeremy Weinstein, bring both practitioner and academic perspectives to Stanford Impact Labs’ leadership — and to our next chapter of growth, investment, and impact. In the Q&A below, Misan explains why now is the time to marry research and practice to solve the social problems around us.
Q. How did you get your start as a social entrepreneur? What problem were you trying to solve and how did you approach it?
I must admit I was an accidental social entrepreneur.
As an MBA student, I found myself engrossed in researching youth employability in West Africa and designing a solution. I had experienced this problem firsthand in multiple ways. First, I was the counterfactual to the narrative–the product of a lottery of birth which led me to have access to private education in a rapidly declining public education ecosystem in my home country of Nigeria. This, in turn, opened doors to global opportunities and even greater employability and positive life outcomes. The 40-odd million West African 18- to 35-year-olds who weren’t fortunate to win the lottery are instead faced with a life of unrealized potential. They are the living proof that “talent is universal, opportunity is not.”
My bias for action and my drive to make a positive difference in the world (as cliche as it sounds) meant that I wasn’t content with “just” understanding the problem and prototyping a solution, I needed to test it as well. In 2013, I launched WAVE (West Africa Vocational Education), to tackle the problem of youth unemployment.
"It was so hard to find funding and the right partners to do the rigorous experimentation and testing and learning we needed to be sure every dollar spent was doing the most possible to help young people find jobs."
Like many entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders, I started the organization because the problem was urgent. I had a hypothesis about the problem and solution — that young people weren’t lacking motivation or drive to get a job, but that they didn’t have the credentials or work experience to get a foot in the door. Our programs gave them work experience, credentials, and personal networks. But were those interventions working? Were we missing important insights that should change our approach? It was so hard to find funding and the right partners to do the rigorous experimentation and testing and learning we needed to be sure every dollar spent was doing the most possible to help young people find jobs.
Q. What were some of the biggest obstacles you encountered as a social entrepreneur working in West Africa?
In addition to challenges around finding and growing the right talent (yes, our talent molding and matching organization faced talent struggles too!), one big challenge was getting support for the kind of testing, experimentation, and innovation that is commonplace in the life sciences and private sector. Many funders wanted to fund our program delivery and scale-up but few were interested in supporting our experimentation. The ability to bring in knowledge, research, experimentation, testing, and evidence shouldn't be a luxury for social problems. It should be a necessity. Even when we found flexible funding, we didn’t have the skills to design our own tests and struggled to find partners to come alongside us in designing research.
Q. Why did you decide to join Stanford Impact Labs as the next step in your journey?
As I learned more about Stanford Impact Labs’ mission, I saw it was aligned with my own motivations. Both Stanford Impact Labs and I are committed to marrying three key elements: hypothesis-driven experimentation, a practitioner's bias for action, and proximity to communities. Aligning all three allows for tackling social problems better and faster. For me, the excitement is not just about what we can do at Stanford, but equally, if not more importantly, beyond Stanford.
"Both Stanford Impact Labs and I are committed to marrying three key elements: hypothesis-driven experimentation, a practitioner's bias for action, and proximity to communities. Aligning all three allows for tackling social problems better and faster."
A couple of interviews into the recruitment process, I knew my motivations and experiences as an evidence-based social problem-solver would complement Jeremy's practice-focused approach to academia and research. One could say he is a practice-oriented researcher and I'm a research-oriented practitioner.
I’ve seen, firsthand, the power of experimentation in tackling complex challenges. After seven years focusing on youth unemployment in West Africa, I am excited to apply my experience and expertise leading social innovation to amplify the impact of teams working on many social problems.
Q. How do you see institutions like Stanford Impact Labs, and universities more broadly, helping those on the front lines tackling social problems? How should we be approaching this work?
I share Stanford Impact Labs’ excitement around what it means to deploy the university as a resource in support of effective local and community leadership. I am fascinated by the challenge of shifting the current paradigm of the social sciences, from one of “knowledge houses” (where insights are held amongst researchers publishing in academic journals that few practitioners read) to a paradigm of “ground-zero partners” (where researchers ideate with practitioners to understand problems and find solutions together from the ground up). To make real change, we must amplify the practical experience of the social sector by partnering with those designing and implementing programs and those affected by them.
Stanford Impact Labs has a unique opportunity to connect researchers with practitioners and provide funding, training, and professional support to make progress on urgent social problems. We also have a chance to show how universities, governments, nonprofits, communities, and funders can work together directly. We must scale solutions to specific social problems, and scale a new way for universities to work alongside the government and the social sector to put ideas into action and social science to work for society.
Q. Research is often seen as distant, elitist, and inaccessible. How do you make the case for what research brings to the table?
When we pay attention, we see examples in our lived experience all the time that reveal the urgency of research. Looking to Covid, we see how academics, pharmaceutical companies, and the U.S. government were all working alongside each other to develop and deliver a vaccine. We need the same sense of urgency and effective collaboration on social problems like unequal access to education and healthcare, racial and gender inequality.
"We all need to pay attention to the words we use and how they create divisions or reinforce the separation between us, rather than help us come together to do the big thing we all want: make better and faster progress on persistent social challenges."
Language matters a lot here. I hold the perspective of a pragmatic social entrepreneur, not an academic. Here at Stanford, I am asked how I used research in my previous work in Nigeria. I never would have called it “research” but rather, testing and experimenting where I needed data and evidence to shape decisions. To my mind, this is evidence-based decision-making and innovation. We all need to pay attention to the words we use and how they create divisions or reinforce the separation between us, rather than help us come together to do the big thing we all want: make better and faster progress on persistent social challenges.
How would I make the case for research, or rather, evidence-based solution-finding? Research provides a greater understanding of problems and solutions, which leads to better and more informed decision-making (in innovation, policy-making, advocacy, etc), which hopefully leads to better outcomes for more people.
It is critical that we level the playing field in terms of who gets to design and shape the evidence used to make decisions. The “who” and the “how” of evidence-based decision-making is just as important as the “why” and the “what.”
Q. What are your greatest ambitions for what Stanford Impact Labs can achieve, and what needs to go right in order for that to happen?
Impact has to be at the top of that list. We have to (1) show that our approach generates new insights, (2) that we are testing and learning from specific innovations, and (3) that our support is helping new teams of scholars and practitioners make progress that improves people’s lives. We can’t assume we will solve huge social problems in a couple of years. But we have to keep a laser focus on positive impact for people, make sure we do our work, and share what we’re learning in a way that helps us — and others — progress.
I want us to be known for pushing ourselves to experiment, learn from, and adapt our own model. I am so impressed with how much this small team is already doing, including looking at how to expand justice and equity across all of our work. This includes increasing our proximity to the communities where our work is situated, pushing ourselves to learn from others with more experience, and bringing more views and voices into our decisions in ways that are mutually beneficial.
Finally, I want R&D (read: evidence-based innovation) in social problem-solving to be more mainstream. There is huge demand and motivation from people in all of our communities to tackle the problems around us. But many are struggling to find workarounds on their own. We have an opportunity to change this in a big way. I want our approach and our impact to create a world where R&D for social problem-solving is sufficiently funded, but more importantly, is shaped by those at the forefront of the problems in partnership with those at the forefront of the methods.