What happens when a social entrepreneur goes to Harvard?

Abby Falik is an award-winning social entrepreneur and the Founder & CEO of Global Citizen Year. She told MBAGRADSCHOOLS about Global Citizen Year and its aim of rethinking the gap year and building future leaders, as well as the important role her experience at Harvard Business School played in preparing her to scale her social enterprise.

In short

Rethinking the gap year: What is Global Citizen Year?

In Abby’s words, Global Citizen Year is “on a mission to reinvent a life stage between high school and what comes next – to give young people from all backgrounds an opportunity to experience the world outside their comfort zone and to unlock a clear sense of purpose and passion and perspective that guides whatever they do next.” (00:10)

Global Citizen Year is the only program that selects the most promising future leaders and helps them develop the skills they need to drive social impact for the rest of their lives. The program is rethinking the gap year. It offers leadership training, real-world experiential learning, personalized mentorship, and a global network of nearly 2,000 alumni in more than 100 countries.

Abby’s experience taking a year off during college inspired the idea behind Global Citizen Year. “I have been fixated on the need to reinvent this pathway since I was 18 and finished high school. I was exhausted from the treadmill. I checked all the boxes. I’d gotten into Stanford, and I knew in my gut something was missing. I was hungry to find an experience that was going to stretch me in the real world before I landed on a college campus, and couldn’t find it,” Abby tells us. “I ended up taking a year off during college and I was living and working in Latin America in Brazil and Nicaragua. The experience was the most formative part of my education and it had nothing to do with my formal education.” (00:32)

“That was the real entrepreneurial insight for me – that the things we teach and learn in a classroom context are not the most important things for a young person’s development and that they’re as worthy of credibility as the things we do in traditional higher education,” Abby concludes. (01:42)

Getting out of your comfort zone at Harvard

Abby is a big believer in getting out of your comfort zone in order to grow. It’s no surprise that, at its core, Global Citizen Year helps young people leave their comfort zones in order to develop the insights and skills needed to drive positive change in the world around them.

For Abby, choosing to go to Harvard Business School was also a step outside her comfort zone. As someone who had worked primarily in the non-profit sector, Abby knew Harvard Business School would put her in her stretch zone. She explains, “There were business school programs where I would have felt more surrounded by people [who had] more similar or familiar paths to me – people who were focused on social impact [or] who were coming out of the not-for-profit sector.” (03:13)

However, Abby continues, “I knew about myself that I learn best when I’m stretched, when I’m outside of that comfort zone, and I felt like if I was going to make the investment of time and resource and energy, I wanted to do it in a context that was going to really shape me in ways that I couldn’t have possibly managed to do on my own.” (03:38)

Developing courage, conviction, and an entrepreneurial spirit at Harvard

With her “why” as a compass (rethinking the gap year), completing her MBA at Harvard ultimately turned out to be its own transformational experience for Abby – one she could bring back to the ambitious goal of launching Global Citizen Year.

While it was a challenging, rigorous experience, Abby reveals, “I really was forced to examine my assumptions, to find language for making a case that might have sounded radical in that context. In many ways, I feel like [the Harvard MBA] developed muscles in me around courage and conviction that have been really essential to everything I’ve done since.” (04:26)

Abby also embraced her entrepreneurial spirit at Harvard. She built a network and gathered resources in her ambition to build a sustainable and scalable enterprise. She credits the case method approach at Harvard for solidifying her experience. “It reinforced my commitment to experiential and emotional learning as the only learning that counts,” she tells us. “It allowed me to develop a clearer sense of who I am and who I wanted to become and how I wanted to lead. In many ways, I think it’s a similar process to what we’ve designed in a Global Citizen Year for our students who come to us at an even younger and much more formative age.” (06:34)

Leadership as a lifelong practice

At Global Citizen Year, leadership has a very specific definition. Its programs are grounded in what they have termed the REAL 21st-century skills like resilience, empathy, agency, and leadership. Abby explains, “We have a very clear definition around leadership – not as a position or an arrival point, title, or salary, but leadership [as] a lifelong practice, something that anyone can activate as soon as they recognize their ability to exert power and influence from wherever they stand.” (02:35)

In her career as an award-winning social entrepreneur and now leader of Global Citizen Year, Abby is highly aware of her own leadership practice. “My role has continued to evolve. I feel like my job as a leader is to carry the vision, to identify and drive resources, to bring it into reality, but then to be wise enough to let go and delegate cleanly to colleagues who are so much better at running parts of the operation than I ever could have been,” Abby says. (07:49)

“I think it’s been a journey of building both confidence and humility, which I see as not opposites, but integrated components of grounding into ourselves,” she adds. “The more we understand our strengths and the more confident we are in the things we don’t know, the more powerful we can be in connecting our head with our heart and being the kind of leader that the world needs.” (08:12)

In short, Global Citizen Year goes beyond rethinking the gap year. Drawing on the skills and networks she developed at Harvard, Abby remains laser-focused on her mission to revolutionize education and build the leaders of tomorrow.

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