Uplifting the Whole People

    Billions of dollars, thousands of organizations, countless volunteer hours — discover the impact of alumni

    By Karen Sherlock on December 5, 2013

    How you contribute to the world

    The impact of University of Alberta grads around the world can be measured in billions of dollars. It can also be measured in innovation, creativity, social change, discovery and countless other contributions to society.

    When U of A professors Tony Briggs, ’95 BSc(Hons), and Jennifer Jennings from the Alberta School of Business set out to explore the impact of U of A alumni, they wanted to build on, but go beyond, previous alumni surveys by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Tsinghua University in China.

    They wanted to ask the broader question of how the university creates not only economic change, but also social, environmental and cultural change.

    “There is a lot of interest in understanding the many roles of universities generally, and the role of universities in catalyzing entrepreneurships and innovation specifically,” Briggs says. “So there’s a lot of opportunity to explore not only what this university is doing but also what is the role of ‘the university.’ ”

    Their findings tell the story of the U of A’s impact through its alumni. Whether as founders and employers, innovators, creators, skilled employees or volunteers, U of A alumni are making a difference in their communities and the world.

    The survey asked alumni whether they had founded an organization, either for-profit or non-profit, and — for the first time in a study of its kind — whether those organizations had a cultural, social or environmental mission. It also asked questions about creative and innovative activity and volunteerism.

    Jennings says when she and Briggs were soliciting input to design the study, one of the most memorable questions came from a person in the arts concerned that cultural organizations and other forms of innovation wouldn’t be counted.

    “When we think of the word ‘startup,’ we don’t typically think of the arts,” she says. “We felt previous studies were missing something really important and timely: the idea that innovative and entrepreneurial activity doesn’t have to be only high-tech. We wanted to be more holistic and inclusive.”

    As their report says: “To the best of our knowledge, this ‘Made in Alberta’ approach is the first to measure a university’s socioeconomic impact in such a holistic manner.”

    Their conclusion? The University of Alberta is a major catalyst of entrepreneurship and innovation.

    “The University of Alberta’s responsibility for uplifting the whole people extends beyond its economic footprint,” the report says. “Each day, its quarter of a million alumni engage in collective and creative activities that drive positive social, environmental and cultural outcomes.”

    One-third of the more than 70,000 organizations founded by alumni have a cultural, social or environmental mission. More than half of those are non-profit. Four of 10 alumni founders have established at least one organization with a primary cultural, environmental or social mission.

    The report notes that a single founder can have a far-reaching impact. Organizations often live on after the founder leaves, and a founder can — and often does — create more than one organization. In the case of U of A, it’s an estimated 1.8 organizations per founder.

    The study also looked at alumni innovation — “introducing something new and valuable to the world” — and found significant contributions in areas such as art and education, literary works and publications, patents and new products, services and processes. In every case, more than half said the U of A played an influential role in their innovation.

    Clearly, our alumni make an impact on society and the economy, and the U of A is a catalyst for that impact.

    “Our alumni embody the spirit of our university’s promise to uplift the whole people,” U of A President Indira Samarasekera said of the findings. “They are successful and extremely committed to giving back and doing social good.

    “We often wonder how the University of Alberta will stand out — what makes our university different from the thousands of others around the world. I believe this is the answer: our students, our staff and our alumni live the university’s mission every day.”