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Bright Lights, Big Ideas

A Hebrew U initiative finds and funds smart ideas that can benefit developing economies
Image courtesy of upliftconnect.com
Image courtesy of upliftconnect.com

Watching the gilet jaune riots in Paris this week, it struck me that this holiday season marks the close of yet another challenging year. I tried to reflect on a time when the world felt less turbulent, but for many years and from pretty much every angle, we have witnessed a widespread increase in violence, hatred, social and political unrest, and human rights crises, all with no end in sight.

At the same time, the holiday season is characterized by an equal number of wonderful, uplifting things. One constant that we see across religious and cultural perspectives is light. Certainly in the darker days of winter, holidays marked by candles or light displays, warm fires, and family time illuminate our lives. And after such an intense year, we need illumination more than ever.

In this regard, I am especially excited about a particular beam of light: the Blum Center for Developing Economies initiative being launched at Hebrew University, Makerere University in Uganda, and 10 of the University of California campuses through UC Berkeley. The center is designed to facilitate global solutions for global poverty. Part of that is Big Ideas, an annual contest providing funds and support to students with ideas for social and entrepreneurial impact. Since the program’s inception in 2006, over 6,000 students have participated and over 250 teams of innovators have received support. Big Ideas recipients have evolved into social enterprises, businesses, and nonprofit groups ranging from local to international in scope.

In addition to funding, award recipients are given access to intimate mentorship from the start of the competition through the days beyond the award term. They can submit proposals in several categories: art and social change, connecting communities, energy and resources alternatives, food systems, global health, hardware for good, workforce education, and development. There is also the option to scale up, wherein past recipients can apply for funds to revive or continue their efforts. The categories and terms are intentionally broad, providing opportunity for a diverse set of ideas to come forward.

From the previous winners, several efforts have already made significant headway. A previous for-profit proposal, Back to the Roots, was conceived by a team of two undergraduates at the UC Berkeley School of Business, who randomly learned that organic mushrooms can grow from used coffee grounds. They began collecting coffee grounds from local shops and growing their own mushrooms at their fraternity house. Fast-forward to their success as 2011 Big Ideas winners, and today they have a thriving company, providing at-home organic grow kits that divert over a million pounds of waste each year.

On the non-profit side, The Somo Project is also a product of Big Ideas. Inspired by her experiences teaching in Kibera, Kenya as a UC Berkeley student, founder Amelia Hopkins Phillips based her visionary program on the idea that talent is widely distributed and can be found in informal settlements all over the world. Named for somo, Swahili for to learn, the program helps identify, recruit, and empower entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses, with training, mentorship, startup funding, and market access. To date, The Somo Project has launched 30 businesses and created jobs for 163 people living in low-income and often high-density urban areas.

Another inspiring organization resulting from collaboration with the Blum Center is WeCare Solar. When Dr. Laura Stachel traveled to Nigeria as part of her PhD research, she witnessed how sporadic or unavailable electricity led to tragic outcomes for many in surgical or maternity care. Without a reliable source of electricity, communications were impaired, c-sections were cancelled or conducted by flashlight, babies were delivered in near-total darkness, and critically-ill patients could wait hours or days for life-saving procedures. Together with her husband Hal Aronson, a solar expert, Dr. Stachel created a “solar suitcase” to provide electricity, communication, and light to thousands of medical outfits in over 27 countries, including Haiti, Liberia, and Nigeria.

The Blum Center knows that oftentimes, the only thing stopping ideas like this from becoming reality is access to funds and the market. For that reason, we aim to lower the barriers to innovation. A distinct element of Big Ideas is the judging criteria. For the first round of applicants, 40% of their score is based on innovation, 25% on potential for impact, 15% on viability, and 10% on the quality and likeability of the proposal. Only in the final round of judging, before funding is awarded, does viability count for a much more significant percentage. This is after months of deep reworking, mentoring, and practicums offered to ensure optimal chances of success.

Mentors and judges across the globe are currently poring over what may be some of the most brilliant ideas under discussion today; plans to truly make the world a better, brighter place. It’s exciting to consider the months ahead, when the programs will be formulated, winners awarded, and plans set for execution.

These projects that result from Big Ideas serve as an inspiring metaphor for lights that have been turned on, growing brighter in the coming months and helping to illuminate us far beyond the winter, into a new year of profound change for the great many that need it.

About the Author
Annette Blum is an activist and philanthropist with a focus on global citizenship. Using art and media as dialogue-generating platforms, Ms. Blum advocates for social justice causes across the globe, and sponsors diverse advocacy-based programs. Among many board and advisory positions, Ms. Blum is a member of the Artists and Educators Board at Center Theater Group, the Clinton Global Initiative, and Religions for Peace, a U.N. affiliate program. Recently, Ms. Blum has collaborated with the Jerusalem Season of Culture program, the Clinton Global Initiative, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, where she shares her experience with social and political programs and events taking place across the globe, with her specific focus on the intersection of art, advocacy and dialogue.
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