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5 Student-Led Teams Innovating for Social Change

Acumen and The Rockefeller Foundation Partner with Universities to Support Entrepreneurs in Launching Ideas for Social Impact

September 08, 2020

In today’s world, social entrepreneurship takes courage. It requires the resilience to tackle problems that seem to double in complexity by the day. Today, a new generation of social entrepreneurs are meeting uncertainty with innovation. They are working to dissolve barriers to inequality in countries and communities across the globe, with ideas that dare to redraw the boundary lines of our wildest imaginations. 

With decades of experience guiding social innovators in developing ideas and scaling impact, The Rockefeller Foundation and Acumen partnered with five university competitions, reaching 30+ campuses worldwide to help early-stage innovators unlock their ideas for social impact. These five competitions welcomed students from Tijuana, Mexico to Thailand and everywhere in between. 

UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest received over 1,240 proposals working across eight social impact sectors. Teams ignited solutions in global health to art to agriculture, representing applicants from 12 global campuses. 

"This year’s Big Ideas awardees personified commitment, passion and perseverance. 2020 was a challenging year, to say the least. Yet the roadblocks of COVID-19, wildfires, and blackouts did not deter Big Ideas teams from developing some of the most creative and promising social ventures in the history of our program," said Phillip Denny, Director of the Big Ideas Contest.

MIT IDEAS welcomed entrepreneurs from five universities including participants from the University of Rwanda and the University of Puerto Rico. Thirteen of their 20 finalists were women-led enterprises. The Resolution Project Social Venture Challenge included a diverse cohort of pioneers from Bangladesh to Ghana, to the United Arab Emirates. Students joining the USD Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge competed with entrepreneurs located in 15 countries including Rwanda, India, and Australia. They introduced ideas to combat inequality in a range of industries such as workplace development and energy. University of Michigan’s Innovation in Action Competition was no different in bringing together the brightest minds to launch ideas that address crucial global issues. The competition included standout teams in the fields of global health, applied data & technology, and more. 

Before we share a glimpse of five winning teams cultivating the moral imagination and courage to see the world as it could be, here is some advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs from our university partners:

"World change starts with self-change. Take a hard look at the structural systems that propagate the undesirable challenges in our world and your potential complicity in it. From there, you can start a ripple," said Rebecca Obounou, Assistant Dean of Social Innovation at MIT.

And even if you’re not quite sure where to start, remember that every successful business started with a big idea. “As a college student, there is absolutely no better time than now to build your idea into something tangible; something real. You have the energy and fresh ideas that are needed now more than ever to tackle the most challenging issues facing our society.' So, if you have an idea and it’s there nagging at you, what are you waiting for?” said Phillip Denny, Director of the Big Ideas Contest.

Earth Voices - 1 of 27 Winners, UC Berkeley Big Ideas Contest 

Imagine if glaciers, mountain tops, and tree lines could tell their stories of what they’ve seen and how their populations are slowly diminishing. Earth Voices is a social enterprise that seeks to give a voice to the hidden stories of the natural elements and its relation to society through a historical audio tour for people that want to explore a new city or place beyond the eye. The idea came to Bernardo Bastien, PhD student at the UC Davis School of Geography during a trip to the Central Library of the National Autonomous University in Mexico, to see an impressive stone mosaic. Not only does this landmark speak volumes about Mexico’s colonial era, but the colorful stones that comprise it, come from regions all across Mexico. 

“We thought how crazy it would be to hear the story that each rock has to tell, what were the geological processes that created it? When did it start its journey to its current place? What part of the Mexican history is represented in the mural?” said Bernardo. He explains that we have been telling the wrong stories. When most of us think of climate change, we think of a polar bear floating on a shrinking ice chip. He asks, “Why talk about climate impacts on polar bears if I can tell you how climate has impacted the very place where you are standing and how society has coped with it?” 

Over the next few months, Bernardo and his team will start recording their first podcast about Mexico City’s Zocalo site. Keep an eye out for it on Spotify, Apple podcast, and other platforms. 

“For as long as I can remember, I have always loved to read.” Ewura Ama thinks back to age six when she was hardly able to contain her excitement in watching her older sister open a new book. As she got older, her hunger for knowledge carried over into the classroom. But she grew distressed, as she began to notice that many children in Ghana weren’t able to access books for their age level. Alongside her university classmate Sedinam Botwe, they launched Booksville — a mobile library providing children in the greater Accra region of Ghana with books tailored to their reading levels and interests. 

In a country where government corruption is common, Ewura Ama believes that achieving  progress requires a shared responsibility between Ghanaian citizens and leaders. When children have access to books and education, they grow up with a greater understanding of which policies can properly address the needs of their communities. Booksville is about giving children the opportunity to develop their understanding of the world and to think critically. 

Since becoming 1 of 5 winners in The Resolution Project, Social Venture Challenge, Ewura Ama and Sedinam have been conducting research into the reading interests of children and reaching out to prospective partners like Ghana Library Authority and Blue Knights Bookshop. Ewura Ama reminds other like-minded leaders looking to make a change in the world, “to have a vision, believe in what you are doing and show others how to get there with you. ” 

Sedinam adds, “It seems impossible until you actually start. The first step is often the hardest and the most demanding but once you take that step, everything else begins to follow.”

Heard - Winner, University of Michigan, Innovation in Action Competition  

Even in developed countries like the United States, there is an increasing need for healthcare services to support patients with chronic conditions, sometimes described as “invisible illnesses.” The symptoms of chronic illness vary but one thing remains true for many who suffer from them — they experience ‘flare ups –– a sudden worsening of symptoms. Having a chronic illness can be a lonely journey that few understand. Student entrepreneurs, Anne Fitzpatrick, Anthony Dang, Elisabeth Fellowes, and Julia Dinoto launched Heard to provide support to those suffering from flare ups by connecting them with real-time, peer-to-peer support through the Heard app. 

"We know that people with chronic illness often experience social isolation creating a stress cycle of flare-ups. If we can make a difference in the life of at least one person living with chronic illness, improving their overall physical and mental health, we will consider Heard a success," said their team.

Since winning the Innovation in Action competition, Heard is busy applying for additional funding opportunities, while seeking advice from other entrepreneurs on how to best launch their vision into a viable product.

Their advice for others looking to move the needle in their community: “Interview, interview, interview your end user or community you’re designing for. We learned for an entrepreneur venture to take off, you must be obsessed with designing for your audience, not necessarily designing with only your idea in mind,” said Anne. 

Palm oil is a substance found in a dizzying number of everyday products. While the demand for the oil is widespread, many of the methods used to produce palm oil are environmentally destructive. Celi Khanyile-Lynch founded Green Source to rewrite this reality, by equipping smallholder palm oil producers in Central and West Africa with the tools needed to harvest and produce sustainably certified palm oil. Big palm oil producers are part of the problem. They currently corner the market, producing large volumes by deforesting regions and depleting natural resources. As a result, smallholders aren’t able to use these resources, causing them to rely on more manual methods or sell their fruit at undervalued prices. 

Green Source is a cooperative that will revolutionize the industry in three ways: supply locally-made processing machinery for smallholders to use at affordable rates, offer sustainably certified products, and provide community education so smallholder farmers can connect with like-minded businesses who are prioritizing the environment. Green Source will also allow local farmers to earn a living wage.

Despite the challenges of this year’s competition, Green Source and other participating teams adapted and persevered to elevate their ideas for social impact. Rebecca Obounou, Assistant Dean of  Social Innovation at MIT, added I was struck by the great level of commitment, passion, and humility of this year's cohort. The awardees understand the challenges and impacted stakeholders intimately. They took full advantage of the MIT IDEAS program to accelerate their growth, which included proposal-specific feedback, a network of advisors, a finalist seminar series, the e-content libraries, office hours, and information session series with other organizations in the ecosystem.”  

Since winning the MIT IDEAS competition, Green Source is focusing on making their supply chain even more sustainable by recycling waste and continuing to forge partnerships with eco-conscious palm buyers. Celi’s advice to other budding entrepreneurs would be to make sure you fully understand the problem you want to solve.

"Take time to listen. Listen to the community, listen to advisors, listen to critics. All points of view were essential to strengthening my solution. I recommend this approach to anyone who is trying to have a positive impact on the world," said Celi.

More than 4 out of 5 moms stop breastfeeding before the recommended six months according to BIOMILQs website. They transition to dairy-based formulas for a variety of reasons including medical complications, low milk production, a return to the workplace, or stigma around breastfeeding in public places. Store-bought alternatives lack the high-value nutrition of breastmilk, which is why Michelle Egger and Leila Strickland, Founders of startup BIOMILQ are unearthing an environmentally conscious solution. BIOMILQ seeks to mimic human breastmilk by culturing mammary epithelial cells in the lab, leveraging their natural ability to produce all 2,500 components of breastmilk. As parents themselves, their team of women scientists and nutrition professionals are using the power of technology to improve child nutrition and development. Their business is also driven by a desire to do good for the earth. To feed just one child for a year with milk-formula, thousands of metric tons of CO2 are emitted, and thousands of gallons of freshwater expended. 

BIOMILQ was awarded the top prize amongst 40 proposals from 24 countries whose ideas coalesced around the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

This year’s 2020 on-campus innovation challenges required a different kind of grit and flexibility given the difficulties of COVID-19. But each university was able to accompany and support their participants in a way that reflects their commitment to young entrepreneurs wielding the courage to develop an idea into something bigger than themselves.

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