Gabriel Evan Conners

2014 MCN Conference Delegate | Undergraduate University: Illinois Institute of Technology | Studies: Social and Economic Development Policy

"I attended the Millennium Campus Conference (MCC) at Lynn University in 2014 with Illinois Tech's Engineers Without Borders cohort. I brought back methods to aid in translating ideas into action and, inspired by my passion to do more with social justice causes, I thought of a vision for a student organization that I later launched in the spring of 2016. The org was called the ideaXchange; it was designed to bring students with a shared interest together to collaborate and solve challenges.

The community of like-minded individuals that I met at the conference had an undeniably infectious spirit. I carried that spirit with me well after my brief weekend stay at MCC. Without realizing it at the time, my MCN experience was the catalyst of my "social impact awakening"; it showed me [how powerful social change could be] when groups of people gathered around issues of common concern. The gathering and collaboration of all people are the conditions for our collective epic to thrive. This is what my work is all about.

The Grassroots Social Enterprise Institute was newly incorporated into Illinois this year as a non-profit. I am one of the three co-cofounders of GSEI, owning the title of Fellowship Program Director. I started the institute alongside a longtime academic (Raed Elaydi) and lifetime social justice advocate (Marc Loveless). As a whole, GSEI exists to strengthen the social enterprise ecosystem in Chicago through research publications and by delivering support services to entrepreneurs who are rooting their businesses in Chicago's most vulnerable neighborhoods. The fellowship program, which I am in charge of designing and operating, is being constructed to serve young adults of minority backgrounds who are committed to long term impact on their home communities. The program will consist of self-discovery, mentorship, design thinking, networking, prototyping, and launching new enterprises that provide jobs, increase access to needed resources, build local wealth, and solve for other challenges of south-side and west-side Chicago communities.

My advice to current students is to stop wasting time. Lean in to your passion and don't be afraid to take risks. I'm kidding. In part. You all are students, quite possibly early on in your journey and may have no clue on earth about what your passion is, or if passion is even a thing. I don't expect you to know. I do want you to understand something, though. Within all of us is a creative seed (or many seeds). In short, these are the things that we enjoy doing, when we do them we "come alive!"

A lot of people in this world are trapped in cycles of work and responsibility that throttle them from exploring the world and possibly stumbling across these seeds. I see it all around Chicago, where folks run from job to job to family just to keep the lights on. Globally, I see folks who may even have the time but don't have the access to resources for learning, discovery, and growth (let alone health to live long enough).

No one is safe from this desert of discovery. Privileged or not, we all can fall victim to the narratives that shut down our willingness to explore and lock us into fear-based pursuits of life (AKA taking the "safe way.") Whether you do or don't believe in passions as guiding forces for your life, I challenge you to not be a victim of exploration-paralysis. Be bold and especially take advantage of these years as a student when you can dabble, risk, and fail with incredibly little backfire. Don't underestimate the vast amount of resources at your disposal. Everything from mentors to student groups to potential founding partners to 3rd degree connections to seed funding- it's all in your lap; just play around and don't take yourself too seriously."

*The "quotes" above have been edited for concision and clarity.