Staying Committed

By: Kirsten Dimovitz

Last year for CGIU, my team, comprised of myself, Brooke Staveland and Ryan Toney, committed to partnering with the Sri Ram Ashram in northern India to establish a peer health-mentoring program called the Peer Health Education Network. We were full of energy and excitement about the prospects of travelling to India and working in a field we were all passionate about. Our goal was to build on the partner school′s network and structure to empower students to teach and learn from each other. The idea was to travel to the site and address the children’s biggest needs, so as to avoid imposing our own ideas and biases on the school, thus truly benefiting no one. After talking to children, teacher, parents and community members, we would sit together and draw on their answer and combine them with our own public health knowledge. The curriculum would be created and implemented with the help of local teenagers, and will focuses on identified community health issues that students and their families face. We saw the failures many other projects had around the world because they were unsustainable or realized on a consistent flow of money and staff. We wanted to make a lasting impact without centering the project on ourselves and how we could benefit.

Yet, we encountered a hurdle in almost direct correlation to this. My team and I spent almost all of our spring semester applying to the business plan, to CGIU scholarships and other local organizations. But, we kept failing. Failing to obtain any money. And we could not figure out why. Maybe our approach wasn’t techie or innovative enough. Maybe we need a fancy gadget to take to the communities. We could not figure it out, and never did we stop to think, maybe we were asking for money for the wrong reasons. Looking back it’s easy to see where the problem lied. It lied not in our well-constructed project, but in the fact that the project was built to be grassroots and sustainable, meaning our costs were virtually zero. Our biggest cost when we were applying for funding was in airfare. As students, and now we considered ourselves team members, we couldn’t afford to travel to India on our own dime, so as other NGOs do, we budgeted our airfare into the cost structure. Yet, because we were asking for money from others, and the budget sheet read $6,000 in airfare and $50 in materials for the actual project we had a problem. We did not receive money and thus we were stalled. We had to go back to the drawing board and try again. Innovate around the own problem we created.

And after Mr. Clinton’s speech at CGIU, we came up with an idea. It was our duty to ourselves and to our partners to continue with this project even though we hit a roadblock. Powering through and flying to India with money from our own pockets was not an option we could afford to take however. But I’m passionate about technology, and during that same time, I was reading tons of articles on e-learning. And Brooke and I had the idea, while sitting in the parking lot at the University of Miami. Why not bring ourselves virtually to the students? We were excited. We could still make this work.
We flew home inspired, but we were again caught in our own web. We were entrenched in midterms, and applications for funding which we would never received yet applying to stole countless weekends from us. And then the summer came, and our partners were out of school and we were in full time jobs. India seemed like a distant dream. As school was just about to start in India, I was on a plane to Kenya, and Brooke a plane to Budapest. Though we tried to keep in contact with ourselves and our other team members I was basically off the grid. Now, being in the capital city Nairobi, I have access to WiFi and this access to my own thoughts I’ve been wrestling with for so many months. We had to reckon with ourselves. We let our project sit and stall. And after seeing so many goodhearted development projects miss the mark or pull out Kenya, I couldn’t believe our good intentions were going the same way.

We both return from our study abroad programs in late December. And though, we’ve slowed our progress, we are recommitted with new intention and new insight from our experiences abroad. We know what needs to be done to accomplish our commitment, and we know we can do it. We have the simple funds from GW to produce educational materials, to produce videos, and to give and on the ground donation for the launch of our program. We’ve learned more than we could have imagined and feel even more prepared to do something meaningful. Sometimes things don’t work out as you planned, but that’s okay, as long as you stay committed and benefit your community in the end.

New Direction of Venture

By: Liana Sherman

The initial social venture idea wound up not being the right direction for my efforts, as it proved incredibly difficult for me to reach one of the target beneficiaries–university students in Spain. After much thought and late nights, I decided to renovate the social venture in a way where I knew that I could begin to make an immediate and more likely impact. This meant having my social venture, which involved starting a translation company linking self-publishing authors with international university students currently studying in the United States (rather than in Spain). The aim is to better both groups by providing the writers with the opportunity of reaching an international market as well as offering international students a source of employment and way of earning credentials in the literary world. My social venture will utilize the bilingual capabilities of international university students by having those who I have trained translate and edit the literary writings of self-publishing writers who are interested in having their work reach global markets.

By starting at my own university, I will have a much stronger ability to develop the venture. Over the course of the past several months, I have mapped out what my plans include on launching this innovative version of my idea. Anticipated organizational partnerships include the Language Center at The George Washington University. The scope of the partnership will entail allowing me to have access to the international students who are currently employed or have had experience in working as a foreign language tutor. The tutors chosen by the Language Center will be good students to begin my social venture with, as the organization not only supports language teaching and learning and research, but also ensures that the students hired as tutors will provide the highest caliber language teaching.

Additionally, as the GWU Language Center provides a wide array of academic support for both faculty and students, I will be able to utilize the organization when seeking professors who are willing and able to assist in the initial training of the international students on the arts of translating and editing the translated works. Moreover, the GW Language Center offers English for Academic Purposes Writing Support Program, which provides service for GWU students with non-English backgrounds.

The tutors trained to provide focused support for non-native speakers and assist in educating on all stages of the writing process to work on audience, brainstorming, citation, drafting, evidence, grammar, organization and flow, outlining, paragraphing, revision, thesis, and tone. My social venture could utilize these tutors as they could help provide the initial education on editing written works. Other anticipated organizational partnerships include publishers and distributors such as Amazon and Smashwords.

This would be beneficial to these businesses as they could promote themselves by attracting attention to their partnership with a social venture (my social venture) that is helping combat worldwide youth unemployment as well as self-publishing authors. This would appeal to consumers as it provides a positive feeling knowing that one’s purchase is going to help address a prominent issue as well as attracting a larger market of international individuals who speak languages other than English. Partnerships like this are essential to my success, for they provide a way to interact with consumers and provide the market demand with the translated literary works.

An obstacle I am dealing with is the stress of classes and commitments in organizations and work. However, I am working through this time limit by reserving time each day to focus on working on detailing my new business plan and outline for how exactly I will launch the social venture.

I am applying to this year’s CGI U with this new direction to my venture idea.

A Long Winding Road

By Evan Young

When you start something that tries to find a comprehensive, sustainable solution in a field as complicated as sanitation, you’re bound to run into some obstacles. These can be anything from unexpected realities to stifling bureaucracy to an absurd amount of externalities you never took into account. The key, at least from what we’ve found, is to embrace these obstacles; take them in; embrace them; and forge on.

The direction in which you forge on is always a mystery. Nearly a year after Maz and I started our Project Dharavi solution from inside the GWU classroom of Matthew Wilkins, we’ve been taken for a wild ride. After receiving the D-Prize Grant and seeing success in the GW Business Plan Competition (where we came in Third Place Overall and won the Best International Venture Award), we saw an entire world open up in front of us that we felt compelled to explore. We needed answers to some of our most pressing questions and assumptions. So we went to find them.

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This search took us to Nicaragua and India over this past summer. In Nicaragua, we went with em[POWER] Energy Group not only to explore the potential of a pilot project at their sites, but to learn as much as we could about the lived experiences and realities of sanitation on the ground. We met families, community leaders, and organizations working on the front lines of the sanitation crisis. In India, we saw the issue of sanitation manifest itself on a complex, massive scale that only India could provide. It was in India, however, where we found something else.

Here, we came upon the realization that our Project Dharavi solution needed time and development, as we did. We saw that pressing social stigmas and governmental bureaucracy would hamper the ability to make the immediate impact we wanted. So we pivoted. It was hard, but necessary.

Instead of solely focusing on our own model, we saw the potential of working with organizations that already have great connections to the communities in which they work and best practices that have been proven over time. This was the case for ASHA (Association for Sanitation and Health Activities), a grassroots organization working to build toilets hand-in-hand with economically and socially marginalized villages in Odisha. Their deep connections to these communities foster open dialogues that lead to awareness and training on the importance of sanitation, changing and improving lives. young

Photo taken by Maz in Delhi

We hit it off with them and saw that we could provide immense value for them in a different way than we originally realized. We could help rally support for them and, in the process of doing so, change the way the world views the sanitation crisis. We realized that we had not come to see the depth and reality of the sanitation crisis until we were forced to confront it and see it for what it was. As an organization based in DC with access to a diverse network of actors, we could make this happen on a much larger scale. We could put a face on the sanitation crisis, making it real and compel people into action.

So here we are. Not quite where we thought we would be, but where we think we need to be. Over the next two months we will be launching a crowdfunding campaign to work with ASHA in the construction of 231 toilets for 231 families. This will also run in tandem with our Coming Clean Campaign, which will try to bring photographers from around the country to translate the story of the sanitation crisis for the world. (For more information on this visit http://www.asepsis.org/comingclean)

It’s been a wild ride and we could not be more excited for where it takes us now.Young2.jpg

Evan discusses sanitation conditions with slum-dwellers in Delhi

GRID takes the stage at CGI U!

By Mariam Adil, March 20, 2015

Disclaimer: This blogpost contains excessive use of superlatives. It is not meant for the weak-hearted!

CGI U 2014 vs CGI U 2015:  CGI U 2014 was great, but CGI U 2015 was just AMAZING. The “game-changer” being the opportunity to share the stage with none other but President Clinton himself, to talk about my passion for video games as development solutions, in front of an audience of 1000 students.  Top it off with having our game “StereoWiped” launched on the App Store the same day (with GW Commitment Maker Challenge financing) and getting some awesome press coverage and you have all the ingredients for a commitment maker’s dream weekend.

CGI U Average Student vs CGI U GW student: Being at CGI U rocks, but being a GW student at CGI U is downright superb! Belonging to the largest group of university students and having a cool mentor/university rep rooting for you makes for an amazing experience. Want more? How about the fact, that thanks to some awesome fundraising by GWupstart, I didn’t have to pay a penny for my flights.

Randomania vs StereoWiped: GRID’s first game Randomania was awesome, but our second game StereoWiped is our favourite child. Our CGI U 2015 commitment puts up on track to taking on conflict-provoking stereotypes and breaking them in a fun and engaging way with different versions of StereoWiped.  The game works as a simple memory game, requiring players to “match” tiles of stereotypes and then breaks them with thought-provoking statistics. “I am a girl… I like pink” or “I am African …. I have AIDS”. With each stereotype matched, the player receives  “food for thought” that breaks the stereotype e.g: “2 out of 3 girls around you prefer blue more than pink” or “Only 5% of the adults in Sub-Saharan Africa have AIDs”. We are excited about taking the game to low-income students in neighborhoods in DC with our new partners FLOC – For Love of Children and fighting social constructs that alienate people and undermine cultural diversity. (Insider news: GRID is also working on some cool new projects, think environmental justice, sanitation and hygiene and Early Childhood Development, follow us on twitter @games_grid to stay tuned).

Asepsis gets feedback at CGI U

March 19, 2015

By Maz Obuz

Going into the CGI U conference the team of Project Dharavi: Redefining Waste (now known as Asepsis) had no idea what to expect. Now, two weeks later we cannot express how amazing an opportunity it was. While at the conference our team participated in both the Resolution Project and was an Exhibitor on the final day. Through both experiences we were able to receive key feedback which has allowed us to strengthen our CGI U Commitment. Being able to talk candidly with established individuals in the development field has allowed us to further understand the numerous anthropological aspects behind what we do. We now have a better understanding of how to best aid those whom we aim to provide our sanitation services.

In addition, CGI U proved to be an incredible networking opportunity. Each and every commitment was extremely impressive and being able to trade ideas with one another was very valuable. Even now we are in contact with a number of Commitment Makers focused on improving everyday lives in the Mumbai region. In addition we have been emailing back and forth with a number of projects focused on health and sanitation issues.

As we continue, we look forward to keeping in contact with everyone we’ve met! The larger the network we create the better chance that Project Dharavi will be able to successfully carry out its mission of providing clean sanitation to those in need around the world.

Check out more about Maz and Even’s work at Asepsis.org

Finding solutions

March 18, 2015

By Evan Young

My partner, Maz Obuz, and I started with venture in the classroom of CGI U-alum and GW Business Plan Competition winner, Matt Wilkins. Titled Makeshift Innovation and Engineering in the Third World, this class gave us the task of identifying a problem and then finding a solution. With such a vague and open-ended task, it took some searching to find the problem that stood out to us as among the most pressing. Ultimately, we arrived at the problem of open defecation as a result of inadequate access to sanitation. We then undertook a systematic study and analysis of the issue, summarized as below:

The Problem: In the heart of the Indian city of Mumbai rests one of Asia’s largest slums – Dharavi. In the shadow of rising skyscrapers and state-of-the-art facilities that bring countless families to the Mumbai in the hopes of a better future, Dharavi struggles with a host of conditions that make life difficult and prosperity seemingly unimaginable. The most pressing of these conditions is the lack of access to sanitation and waste management services.

With one toilet for every one-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty-four people, a vast majority of Dharavi residents are left with no option but to defecate in the open; a reality that is largely responsible for the four thousand cases of disease reported every day, a majority of which are caused by contaminated water sources. Luckily, with the World Bank reporting that India loses nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) per year as a result of inadequate sanitation and PM Modi announcing that his administration aims to have a toilet in every Indian household by the end of his term there is the possibility of change. Perhaps, India has come to understand the gravity of inadequate sanitation’s negative impact and can take the proper steps to solve the problem nationwide. In this climate, the extremely high density of people and the high percentage of informal housing in Dharavi make addressing sanitation issues, both a complex and vital undertaking.

The Solution: Our solution – in the proverbial nutshell – is the implementation of a highly integrated and sustainable system that stresses waste collection, learning from both the successes and failures of similar initiatives. Our main tool to achieve this will be a low-cost, portable, and durable toilet that will function as the vehicle with which Dharavi residents can take sanitation and waste management services into their own hands. While a complex system of community hubs, portable toilets, connections with biogas companies, and – hopefully – the support of the Indian government, at the heart of our solution lies a desire to provide toilets that restore dignity to Indian families lacking alternative sanitation options, and to make a value chain that brings together important actors in sanitation.

Where We Have Been: The class tasked us with formulating our solution through the Lean Start-Up Method, which stressed cycles of ideation, prototyping, and succinctly putting our plan into a workable method. This helped us as we progressed out of the class and into more formal competitions.

We are currently in the finals of the GW Business Plan Competition, which will allow us to compete for funding with nine other teams through pitching to investors and presenting on our solutions. The prizes and packages offered are great by themselves, but the experience of speaking in front of investors and judges will be even more wonderful. Throughout the process we had to compile tons of interviews for customer development, refine our financial projections, and formulate important value propositions; all crucial facets of running a successful project capable of helping many people.

We are also in the final round of consideration for the GWupstart D-Prize, a competition that seeks to sponsor initiatives that improve the ability of organizations to distribute essential health goods to people. We have been through tons of rounds of interviews and proposals, now waiting to hear back.

CGI U: We were able to meet tons of potential partners and investors as well as learn from other projects working in similar fields. We also made it to the final round of the Resolution Project, which would have given us the opportunity to become fellows and have access to the global reach of their community. Unfortunately, while we made it to the final round, we did not get the fellowship or funding. In the end, we are not too worried about it because we think it may have pigeon-holed us with requirements and commitments that would have not allowed us to be as dynamic as we wanted. We were also given the chance to participate in an exhibition and present to a panel of well-qualified judges, which allowed our idea to get out there!

Great talks. Great people. Great experience all-around.

Going Forward: The most essential steps we need to take now are the construction of our prototype here, finding partners within India to help us implement the system, and have preliminary conversations with biogas firms (who will be key in receiving the waste we collect). A lot of parts are in motion and, while we have pivoted a great deal, we are confident that our system can make a positive change.

All it is going to take now is more hard work!

More at Asepsis.org

In the game of international development

GWupstart’s Melanie Fedri took a moment to sit down with Mariam Adil (ESIA MS ’15)

May 12, 2014

Q. Tell us about social entrepreneurship. What does it mean to you?

A. When you mix entrepreneurial passion with a vision to change the world for the better you get social entrepreneurship. At its very core is the ambition to contribute positively to the world around you.

Q. You had the initial idea to found GRID. What problem are you working to solve?
A. There is a learning gap between the science of international development taught to students and development practitioners, and the art of development practiced by professionals in the field. Until now, there have been few tools to bridge that gap – to provide the experiential learning required to practice complex decision-making at a scale well beyond one-to-one interaction.

Q. What is GRID all about? What does it aim to do?
A. GRID provides low-cost, demand-driven gaming solutions for greater understanding of the challenges encountered in international development. With a push towards innovative use of technology in international development, and the recognition of the effectiveness of games as learning tools, the stage is set for development games to be introduced as training mechanisms for development practitioners and students.

Q. Was there one moment or a series of moments that inspired you to action?
A. Being a student and a practitioner of international development, I realized the importance of the art of development and the need for learning tools that could simulate the challenges faced in perfecting this art.

Q. Have you had an “aha” moments of insight while working to get GRID off and running?
A. It is easy to get carried away with the excitement of a new idea. An important lesson for me was “not everything can be simulated as a game,” and this came as a random thought when I was trying to make sure our first game did not end up looking like an online course module. It was an important thought that allows me to filter between challenges that have the potential to be simulated with GRID games.

Q. Has anyone been a sounding board for you in the process of founding GRID?
A. GRID has been a team effort and our inspiration has come in little doses, in the shape of moments when we’ve gotten to discuss our idea with development experts and they’ve told us GRID is unique and meets a pressing need.

Q. The diversity on GRID’s team is notable. Tell us about that.
A. GRID serves a niche market of gaming solutions for the development world. This marriage of gaming with development is a fairly new idea, and it helps build holistic knowledge in the field, which is hard to gain because topics are taught in a fragmented way. Creating games that simulate realistic scenarios for international development requires an interdisciplinary approach. GRID has a number of students and mentors from different fields on its team. Our student team members have expertise that ranges from economic development to public policy to computer programming to business administration to fine arts and music.

Q. You and two of your teammates attended CGI U 2014. How did that experience benefit GRID?
A. Two days packed with inspiration, passion, and optimism made CGI U the perfect launching pad for our first game.

Q. Can you share a valuable insight you picked up at CGI U?
A. We met Asi Buran of Games for Change at CGI U 2014, and he gave great advice about marketing social games. The pricing and marketing of social games is very different from conventional games.

Q. If a GW student was on the fence about social entrepreneurship, and turning thought into action, what would you have to say to him or her?
A. It won’t be easy but its worth every ounce of energy! There will come a time when your venture will be the driving force behind all your ambitions, be they professional or academic.

Q. How does your work with GRID support your professional goals?
A. Being a development practitioner myself, I know that holistic knowledge of the development process is critical. The process of developing GRID games helps me do my development work for the World Bank so much better. I know it can help thousands of practitioners and students just like me.

Q. What’s next for GRID?
A. We’ve piloted our first game with the World Bank, and we’re looking forward to expanding our reach and making more games.

GRID was also a 2014 Finalist in the GW Business Plan Competition. Watch their pitch in the final round here: