On a sunny Saturday in April, New York's Washington Square Park teemed with life at leisure. But in a windowless lecture room across the street, a group of young people had their minds halfway around the world. They were brainstorming incentives to combat rumored instances among dairy farmers of spiking their milk with water (to increase quantity), paint thinner (to up the fat content), even urine (for a high-protein kick).
It was a primer on sustainability, part of a packed itinerary for fellows of StartingBloc, a four-year-old nonprofit that educates and places high-achieving, change-minded college students and young professionals. Its Institute for Social Innovation, which runs programs in New York and Boston, selects 400 people a year to join in four daylong training and networking events, studded with leaders from business and public policy, and to consult for clients such as Starbucks and Zipcar.
The idea is to position young people to drive social, economic, and environmental innovation. Look at what StartingBloc alums have done so far: Twenty-three-year-old Mattias Sparrow, a fellow from 2004, now manages strategy and development for the Gary Klinsky Children's Centers, an after-school-programs provider supporting 800 kids at five schools in Brooklyn. Priya Khetarpal, then 20, helped KLD Research & Analytics in Boston launch an index of 100 companies investing in technologies that address climate change. Moses Choi, 25, an assistant portfolio manager for Citigroup in New York, has been working to set up an internal corporate-social-responsibility club.
"As a fellow, there's this feeling of 'Wow, there's so much I can do!'" says Jo Opot, 24, who turned down a job with the United Nations after her 2005 fellowship to become StartingBloc's director of programs. Most college students, she says, are taught to "[go] into the for-profit sector, make money, ignore any social or environmental ethic, and maybe down the line effect change—or go through the nonprofit sector, work on saving the world, but resign yourself to a miserable salary."
That dilemma was precisely what StartingBloc founders Martin Smith and Blake Bible sensed as undergrads at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, respectively, back in 2002. "We recognized this need for a national organization that would both raise awareness in college students and develop them as leaders," says Bible, now 23. But just another student group wasn't the intent. "We're really accomplishing our mission if we're preparing leaders who have a systems framework for how different sectors can collaborate," says Smith, 22.
Already, StartingBloc has relationships with grad schools at MIT, Duke, and Tufts, which reserve spots in their programs for fellows, and with companies and nonprofits that provide internships. A homegrown social-networking site called 1Bloc, set to debut this August, could generate revenue from employers interested in tapping into StartingBloc's growing talent pool.
By 2008, StartingBloc expects to expand its institute to London, Chicago, and San Francisco. "As a training model, I think StartingBloc could be scaled fairly well and easily so that thousands of its fellows could be out there," says Michael Brown, president of City Year and a past presenter for the Boston institute. Right now, though, "they're the best-kept secret in the world of social entrepreneurship, and that has to change."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.