The Social Innovation + Change Initiative (SICI), based at HKS’s Center for Public Leadership, was established in 2016 to accelerate the world’s capacity for social changemaking and, in doing so, to help address the pressing systemic social and environmental issues of our time. One of SICI’s first priorities was to create a hub for social-change projects on campus, and it did so through a social-impact accelerator: the New World Social Innovation Fellows Program.
This accelerator is a rigorous weekly cocurricular experience for Harvard students who are actively advancing innovative social-change efforts spanning issues, geography, and sectors. Faculty members, staffers, and practitioners engaged in supporting selected students—known as Adrian Cheng Fellows—work closely with them to shape the social-impact-strategy layer of their work through weekly sessions, coaching, mentorship, and funding plans.
Alumni of the program—today numbering close to 100 from across Harvard schools—frequently say that this experience at HKS defined their time at Harvard and shaped the trajectory of their social-change efforts after graduation. Here are just a few of them, a brief insight into their work, and their thoughts on the program.
Shawon Jackson MPP 2021
Shawon Jackson is the founder of Vocal Justice, whose mission is to teach undervalued high school students how to communicate authentically and persuasively about social justice—wherever they aim to go in life.
“The Cheng Fellowship was instrumental in advancing my social venture,” Jackson says. “I walked away with concrete learnings on how to build a successful organization, strong connections to individuals who share a passion for social justice, and a stronger belief in my ability to make a significant impact on the world around us.”
Connor Schoen College 2020
Connor Schoen is a cofounder of Breaktime, a Boston-based, youth-led nonprofit that elevates young adults out of homelessness through transitional employment and empowerment.
Pelkins Ajanoh MS/MBA 2022
Pelkins Ajanoh is a cofounder of CassVita, a tech-enabled agribusiness that empowers local farmers through its novel technology for increasing the shelf life of cassava, a rapidly deteriorating root vegetable.
Samlara Baah MC/MPA 2020
Samlara Baah is the founder of Loo Works, which leverages green technology to provide container-based toilet solutions to low-income households within peri-urban neighborhoods in Ghana.
“It was validating to wake up every day and say, ‘Yes, I am going to make a way in my community—to harness all of the brilliance and goodness that I have, or via my networks—to really provide a solution for marginalized communities,’” Baah says. “I value Cheng in giving me that opportunity to say, ‘Yes, it’s okay that “social entrepreneur” is my tagline.’ … Going into SICI’s accelerator program allowed me to validate this new aspect of my life.”
Chris Kuang College 2020
Chris Kuang is a cofounder of Coding it Forward—a nonprofit by and for young people creating new opportunities and pathways in social impact and civic technology. Coding it Forward served as a blueprint for the U.S. Digital Corps—a new two-year fellowship program within the federal government that recruits early-career technologists to contribute to high-impact digital efforts—where Chris Kuang now leads as a cofounder.
Shelly Xu MBA 2021
Shelly Xu is the founder of Shelly Xu Design, the first fashion-tech start-up to make beautiful, accessible, 100% zero-waste designs so that eliminating the carbon footprint in what we wear becomes second nature rather than a compromise.
“This is my family away from home. SICI and the Cheng Fellowship have made me a better founder and a better person,” Xu says. “I joined with a product idea and left with the drive to systematically shift the industry. I will be forever grateful for this community.”
Alena Vachnová MC/MPA 2022
Alena Vachnová is a housing advocate leveraging her role at Foundation DEDO to end family homelessness by adapting a housing-first approach in Slovakia.
Trisha Prabhu College 2022
Trisha Prabhu is the founder and CEO of ReThinkTM, which is built on patented technology that detects bullying language as it’s typed and prompts users to rethink their words before the damage is done.
“SICI [has] somehow found a way to maximize organizational efficacy and teach super-valuable tools and, at the same time, create an organization that is rooted in values of compassion and empathy,” Prabhu says. “I feel like many organizations see those things as a trade-off; [SICI] understood rightly that those goals can be reinforcing and mutually supportive.”
Photography provided by Social Innovation + Change Initiative (SICI).