The idea for The Impact Fellowship was largely born of a frustration: I was sick and tired of hearing all my computer science friends talk about their internships at Uber and Snapchat.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Snapchat as much as any college student, but when I think of the tremendous challenges that humanity is facing in the 21st century — climate change, crippling poverty, rampant epidemics — sending disappearing selfies is low on the list of global priorities.
I wanted to create a space where computer scientists could explore how to leverage their technical skills for social good, and that idea became the inspiration for The Impact Fellowship!
Right away, I knew that I wanted to pursue this idea with my best friend, Adi. He’s brilliant, funny, incredibly warm, and always eager to meet people. When I told him about the idea, he looked at me with a “Hell yeah” expression on his face and told me to count him in. From then on, we teamed up and worked together to create a program that we hoped would be as epic possible!
Based in NYC for two weeks over winter break, we gathered 35 incredible college CS students from all over the country to inspire and empower the next generation of social entrepreneurs!
By day, the fellows studied advanced software engineering and web development skills taught by amazing instructors — and by night, we featured speakers from NGOs, social startups, non-profits, think tanks, research institutions, and philanthropic organizations who are using technology to change the world for the better!
Most importantly, the fellows formed teams and worked collaboratively to design and develop an innovative solution to a pressing social issue, and the program culminated in a pitch night where the fellows got to showcase their final projects to a panel of judges and VCs.
The goal was to get tech students to critically examine issues like climate change, global hunger, and inaccessible education in order to discover where their talents can have the greatest impact, either in an established company or by starting their own.
After all, if the brightest minds aren’t building a better future, who will?
It’s not enough to inspire — we aimed to empower.
From the outset, we knew that we wanted to do more than just talk about tech for social good: we wanted to actually teach the hard skills that are becoming more expected in a modern engineer’s toolkit.
And because we wanted to focus on emerging technologies that have an even greater potential to change the world, we also featured courses on machine learning (TensorFlow) and blockchain development on the Ethereum protocol (Solidity).
Adi gets the major credit here, since he managed to find a roster of incredible instructors from places like Fullstack Academy and the Flatiron school; but the true MVPs are the instructors themselves, since they all graciously volunteered their time and expertise out of a shared commitment to our vision.
We focused on more than just technical skills, though. A central pillar to The Impact Fellowship was encouraging the fellows to think entrepreneurially, so we featured courses in product design, lean startup methodology, and storytelling.
We showed that there really is no secret sauce to being a founder, and that no one is ever going to give you “permission” to start your own business — entrepreneurship is a learned skill, and there are concrete and measurable steps you can take to pursue your own ventures.
After all, if you don’t build your own dreams, other people are going to hire you to build theirs!
The best part of my job was reaching out to speakers.
Everyday, we featured 2 or 3 amazing speakers from organizations that are using technology to make the world a greener, healthier, safer, and more equitable place!
Eden Full Goh, for instance, is a Thiel Fellow and the founder of SunSaluter. She joined us to talk about her adventures in Kenya designing and deploying a water-ballasted solar panel that tracks the motion of the sun throughout the day, increasing efficiency by 40% while simultaneously purifying the water used in the device.
Ben Siegel, the director of the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition at ConsenSys, came and spoke about all the amazing initiatives that pioneering technologists are developing using blockchain and how the revolutionary tech can be applied to help the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Andrew Yang, founder and CEO of Venture For America, told us all about his experience channeling young entrepreneurs into companies where they could thrive and his upcoming book in which he outlines the dangers of automation to the average worker — along with his secret attempt to change it! ;)
It’s so valuable to see entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, idealists, and designers who are actually making a difference on a global scale. In this generation, it’s easier than ever to accept complacency in our careers, yet it’s never been more important not to. By inviting the speakers to share their stories, we hoped to show the fellows the innumerable ways that they can use their talents to make an impact!
The Team Project:
After a week of learning all about each other, the fellows teamed up during the second week to work on a project that would put their skills to the test.
They spent a few days brainstorming and doing research to hone in on a specific challenge, and then they designed a tech-based solution to a specific social problem they identified.
One team, for example, created an app that would act like AirBnb for safe houses — so if someone is a victim of domestic abuse, that person can log into the app to find shelters and volunteer homes in order to safely escape a toxic environment.
Another team identified a problem of sharing data between non-profits — specifically non-profits that work to deliver clean water to people in developing nations — so the team started an initiative that would incentivize these nonprofits to collaborate. But they didn’t just build out the platform, they had the entrepreneurial drive to contact people at the UN and the WHO and were able to successfully partner with a number of water-focused NGOs!
I’m proud to report that many of the teams are still working on their projects even though the program is over. Being a social entrepreneur is a life-long task, and it takes time, determination, and grit to run a social startup. Luckily, the sense of fulfillment and pride makes it overwhelmingly worthwhile.
I cannot possibly express how excited I was on that first day, and how bittersweet I felt on the last. Adi and I set out to create a program where computer science students could explore how they could apply their tech talents for social good — what we wound up with was so much more!
The program was extremely dense, and the fellows walked away the skills and ambition it takes to make an impact. That’s not to say that we didn’t cut loose sometimes — we got to go ice skating in Bryant Park together and visit the MOMA and hit up a few NYC improv shows and play card games over some late night Ben & Jerry’s.
But more valuable than anything we did during the fellowship were the bonds that the fellows had forged with each other. These relationships are just the beginning for the future founders that will change the world, and I’m so happy that we were able to bring them together.
As the fellowship concluded, and everyone tearily hugged goodbye and promised to visit each other during the school year, we all realized how valuable the experience was, and how there’s so much more to come.
As phenomenal as the fellowship was, it would be foolish to stop now.
Adi and I have visions of The Impact Fellowship blossoming into Impact Labs, which would be a whole suite of programs and initiatives designed to inspire and empower social entrepreneurs! We hope to make the fellowship bigger and better every year, and eventually establish an Impact Fellowship in San Francisco, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Shanghai! We’ve already begun planning The Impact Summit, which will be happening on June 1st in NYC (instead of 35 students over 2 weeks, we aim to gather 350 students over 2 days!). We want to create The Impact Academy where we can teach computer science to high schoolers and get them excited about social change! We hope to launch The Impact XX Conference for women in tech who are game-changers in the social innovation space! We want to create The Impact Accelerator, which could be a startup studio for social enterprises! We eventually want to create The Impact Fund where we can invest in the entrepreneurs building the tools that will shape our future!
There’s no reason to think small when it comes to making an impact. With lots of passion, tons of hard work, and the amazing support from the people and organizations who share our vision, we hope to propel this idea and make it the global powerhouse that we know it can be.
We invite you to join us as we pursue our mission at www.theimpactfellowship.com.
With your help we can build a better world together!