The bridge between corporate citizens, social entrepreneurs and social organisations such as Ashoka is a powerful connection to amplify social impact and contribute to positive change. In this interview we explore the partnership between Steelcase and the Ashoka Europe Fellowship Program through the lens of shared values, impact goals and the common desire to shape the world we live in – for the good of all.

This interview between Kim Dabbs and Georg Schön has been led by Giulia Sergi, co-lead of the Ashoka Europe Fellowship Program.

Kim Dabbs
Global Director of Social Innovation at Steelcase, the core partner of the Ashoka Europe Fellowship Program

Georg Schön
Managing Director Ashoka Austria & Program Director Europe Fellowship Program

Giulia Sergi: “Dear Kim, could you please introduce yourself briefly?”

Kim Dabbs: “Thank you so much for inviting me into this conversation. I lead global social innovation for a company called Steelcase. We build environments, products and services for the future of work throughout the world. My work continues to be one of service for all of the communities where we live and work throughout the globe. And one of understanding how we can build stronger relationship to advance some really bold goals to make the world a better place.”

Giulia Sergi: “Georg, can you please explain to us: What is Ashoka and what is your work all about?”

Georg Schön: “Ashoka is the world largest organization supporting social entrepreneurs that has coined the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ 40 years ago and is positioning social entrepreneurship as a new field for action, globally. What I am doing is pretty straight forward: I am supporting social entrepreneurs to reach their full impact potential. I am doing this in Austria, in Europe and even beyond Europe in many different ways.”

Values as the common ground:
“We are both driven by the mission to create a society where everyone can be a changemaker.” Georg Schön

Giulia Sergi: “What is it that connects Steelcase, a world-wide operating furniture company, with Ashoka, the largest global network of Social Entrepreneurs?”

Kim Dabbs: “We both think about the world that we want to live in and the future of work and the future of work places. The future can’t exist without the incredible potential and action of social entrepreneurs throughout the world. We both have an understanding of wellbeing and of social impact, as well as of how to build strong  and resilient cultures with key partnerships.”

Georg Schön: “What connects us deeply are our visions. We are both driven by the mission to create a society where everyone can be a changemaker, where everyone can unleash their full potential. Besides that we share a commitment to social innovation and sustainability. I think we both have a mindset of being an explorer. To not stay with the status quo. We always want to go beyond.”

“Any change happens at a systems level.” Kim Dabbs

Giulia Sergi: “So you are both explorers of social innovation! Kim, what role does “social impact” play in your work?”

Kim Dabbs: “For us social impact is at the core of everything that we do as a company. Our strategy is focused on this umbrella of unlocking human promise. So, we have three areas for social impact:  
1. Connecting people to purpose: We believe that strong communities, strong locations, strong companies are built because of people. Because of their ideas and their strength and authenticity to be who they are and bring their whole selves to work and the community.
2. Building cultures of innovation. We want to ensure that people who are closest to the points of needs in the communities have the right methods and mindsets to come up with new ideas.
3. We both – Ashoka and Steelcase – believe that any change happens at a systems level. So, no matter what we are doing, we need to make sure that we are not just serving individuals but we are disrupting the entire system and strengthening solutions overall.”

Inspired by social entrepreneurs

Giulia Sergi: "About this specific partnership with Ashoka: What inspires you about it?"

Kim Dabbs: “There is so much! For example, as an organisation we really lean on social entrepreneurs to understand what the future of work is, how we are the best corporate citizens that we are able to be. And it is only through shared knowledge and shared partnership that we are able to systemically transform both our organisation internally and the communities externally. I think the European Fellowship in Ashoka is the key partner for that.”

“It gives me hope that we are going to emerge out of this as a stronger community, a stronger world.” Kim Dabbs

“For me it’s so inspiring to get to meet with Ashoka and get to learn and understand what each and every social entrepreneur is doing in their local community. And we have this great opportunity to come up with beautiful ideas that start to shape our world that we live in.
Every time I go to an Ashoka gathering, I am amazed and honestly hopeful. Each and every one of your Ashoka Fellows is emerging from these challenging times with really innovative solutions. Solutions that are impacting the communities where we live and work. It gives me hope that we are going to emerge out of this as a stronger community and a stronger world. It’s been an inspiring journey with you.”

Giulia Sergi: “Georg, how can partners like Steelcase help to reach larger-scale social impact?”

Georg Schön: “Let me start by just empathizing what inspired me about this partnership from the very beginning. We both focus on systems change rather than band-aid solutions. We want to explore how we can shape a system in which we are working. I am convinced, together we can create truly meaningful positive impact.”

Individual impact through the core business of our partners

“In this partnership, I am also inspired by how space influences how we think, how we feel, how we build relationships. I learned about this when we co-initiated a co-working space in Vienna in a beautiful space, surrounded by art. It really showed me how the change of the environment just makes such a huge difference. “Beauty inspires beauty”, as one of our Ashoka Fellow says. It requires wellbeing in the inside to be able to affect positively the outside in the long run. And I think that this is really something that we learn, co-learn and co-create with Steelcase going forward.

As our working cultures are changing, the future of work is now shifting faster than we ever expected. We require bold solutions, bold thinking, bold perspectives. I think this is a very fertile ground for us to explore synergies and collaborations that will influence the whole sector and beyond.
Every partnership is also about co-learning, as you said Kim, about sharing the wisdom that we have accumulated. I think we are just at the beginning of this inspiring journey. I am  looking forward to unfold our  co-creation moving ahead because it bears tremendous opportunities for all of us.”

Key social challenges in Europe – two perspectives, many solutions

Giulia Sergi: “Georg and Kim, I would love to hear your personal perspective on this: What are the key social challenges in Europe that partnerships like this one can and should tackle?”

Kim Dabbs: “The things we continuously focus on are guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There are three areas that we are really focused on in Europe and through our European partnerships:  
1. Reducing inequalities as I think inequality exists in every community.
2. Closing the gap on equity and education. So, how do we support quality education and initiatives throughout the world?
3. How do we start to preserve culture? What does that look like to build stronger and more sustainable communities?”

“Because whatever is happening now, the future are our children. And we need to support them to take a stand in shaping our future.” Georg Schön

Georg Schön:

  • “There is the immediate tragedy in which we are living: Inequality, unemployment, safety networks, social cohesion which is incredibly affected by the crisis.
  • And second, we believe at Ashoka that everything is created and everything blossoms through our kids. To help kids understand their role in society from a maybe passive receiver to an active shaper, a changemaker, is one of our core priorities. Because the future are our children. And we need to support them to take a stand in shaping our future.
  • The third element is also my personal passion: It’s climate change and the planet earth. I truly hope that we are getting more aware of the tremendous impacts of the ecological crisis  in front of us. I hope we as a society understand we need to act now.“


ON A PERSONAL LEVEL: Let’s get to know Kim Dabbs and Georg Schön a bit better:

Giulia Sergi: “What was your favourite movie as a kid?”

  • Kim Dabbs: “I loved E.T. It was the first one I was able to see at a movie theatre and I think that’s something that has always remained with me.”
  • Georg Schön: “I have to say Karate kid. And the TV series MacGyver. I really loved that.”
  • Kim Dabbs: “That was a great series!”

Giulia Sergi: “What was the last book you read?”

  • Kim Dabbs: “I think it was “Hippie” by Paolo Coelho.”
  • Georg Schön: “I can’t remember, I honestly read so many books that I really cannot remember what my last book was.”

Giulia Sergi: “What's your personal superpower?”

  • Kim Dabbs: “I am able to see systems. I would say that my superpower is leveraging social capital for positive impact and to really understand where systems and relationships live throughout the world. And being able to connect changemakers to those systems.”
  • Georg Schön: “For me, I think it’s persistence. I stay on. And continue when it gets tough. I always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it takes a lot of time.”

Giulia Sergi: “Digital meetings: Inspiring or exhausting?”

  • Kim Dabbs: “I think both. I miss people. I miss seeing and acting with them in person. I miss being in our offices and being able to really connect with our employees. So, I am looking forward to being back to the office and meeting people in person again.”
  • Georg Schön: “Exactly the same. Both. Very tiring but also nice to be at home and see your family. However I enjoy going back to the office. It gives a lot of energy.”

Giulia Sergi: “Biggest personal challenge during the Covid-19 lockdown?”

  • Kim Dabbs: “From a work perspective, I love co-creation and the tools of co-creation. I think it’s been really hard for me to figure out early on what co-creation means in this situation. And then personally, I haven’t been home in a row this long for probably two decades. It’s been learning a new way of living and not just a new way of working.”
  • Georg Schön: “For me personally, it was definitely the work-life-balance. With three kids suddenly getting home-schooled and without any support that we had before from grandmothers and others, it was really tough.”


Two hopes for the new reality (post-crisis)

Giulia Sergi: “What is your biggest hope for the new reality (post-crisis)?”

  • Kim Dabbs: “I think my biggest hope is that we don’t go back to normal. The normal wasn’t working before. We can take this opportunity to re-think systems. And I think my hope is that people come together and emerge out of this with a new desire and new willingness to have sustainable change.”
  • Georg Schön: “Yes! I can just build on this. Higher awareness about us as a world and the opportunity to act together globally to counter-act tragedies like the one. Higher commitment for social causes and the openness to change the course of history so that we mitigate risks in the future.”

Giulia Sergi: “Thank you Kim, thank you Georg!”


About Ashoka Europe Fellowship Program:
The Ashoka Europe Fellowship Program is a co-learning and co-creation community of Ashoka Fellows, Ashoka Support Network members (ASN), Ashoka staff and partners from civil society, public institutions, media, business and academia. Together we leverage Ashoka's local and global experience, resources and networks in order to advance social entrepreneurship and changemaking for the good of all - across the continent.
If this has inspired you and you are inclined to partner with us, too, please reach out to our partnership manager Giulia Sergi to exchange first ideas!

About Steelcase:

"At Steelcase, we empower people to dream bigger, approach problems creatively and be a force for good in the world.
By using our resources and partnering with other impact-driven organizations, we’re creating new opportunities that help more people reach their full potential. Together, we’re reinforcing our commitment, raising the bar and reimagining the future."