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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Heller students shoot for social justice gold

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: News

Earlier this month, the Hult Prize, the world’s largest student competition for social good, was awarded to students from all over the globe for their entries. Since 2010, the prize, which is partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative, has invited groups of students to pitch their ideas for business startups with a social justice goal.

The winner of the prize not only gets recognition for their startup, but $1,000,000 to fund their idea and get it started in the real world. Of the thousands of applicants this year, 200 teams ended up being selected for regional competitions, including a team of students from Brandeis’ very own Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

The team is made up of five Heller graduate students with diverse and impressive academic backgrounds including computer science, sustainability and business. For example, group member Rachael Gold-Brown currently studies Sustainable International Development and Coexistence and Conflict, while teammate Yan Shi is a former HR executive for China’s Ping An Bank currently pursuing her MBA at the International Business School.

By combining their diverse backgrounds and skills, the team won the Heller School’s first social justice-based startup competition last fall, which encouraged them to try for the Hult Prize. Though the team did not win the Hult Prize, they are far from finished. Because of the city’s association with prestigious universities and other institutions, Boston is home to many startup competitions throughout the year, including the Lean Startup Challenge and the MassChallenge, which the team plans on entering.

“Even though we did not win the Hult Prize, this does not mean that our journey has stopped,” said team member Di Luo in an email to The Hoot. “We still can refine our idea and submit it to [similar competitions such as] the MassChallenge.” Luo, who taught financial literacy and entrepreneurship in China and now studies Sustainable International Development at Brandeis, also cited the team’s chemistry as a reason for confidence. “We are good friends now,” Luo said. “We expect to build the same momentum and put the same effort as the Hult Prize into [future competitions.]”

The team’s business model deals with improving access to health care in slums and areas of extreme poverty, which several members already had experience in. Eyad Fallatah, a student of computer science, previously developed online applications for health care-based nonprofits, and Melissa Nazareno previously worked in health care management, and is now pursuing her MBA at the Heller School. “We based our business model in a slum in Ghana, where health care is impossible to access and incredibly expensive,” said Nazareno in an interview with The Hoot this week.

Though the team cannot discuss the specifics of their model during competition season, Nazareno expressed her confidence in its structure. “I’m very lucky to be in this team,” Nazareno said. “Everybody works so well together, and we all want to change the world for the better, which makes us work harder.”

According to Luo and Nazareno, Brandeis’ motto of social justice was a large influence on their business model. “At a school [like Brandeis,] with this kind of message, it is so easy to find other people who are passionate about the same things, it’s great,” said Nazareno. “The fact that I was able to find such great people to work with is definitely credible to Brandeis.” Luo holds similar sentiments. “When making the case study and pitch plan, I never forget that there are 250 million slum dwellers suffering from chronic disease,” he said.

Overall, the team is confident that they will be able to succeed in the future. “I’m not the kind of person to give up easily,” said Nazareno. “Boston is such a great place for [startup] competitions, and [the team] is really committed to improving and submitting our model.” Currently, the team is fine-tuning their plan for MassChallenge’s April 2 deadline, as well as trying to keep up with their studies.