Societal Solutions Scholars are bettering the world, one grant at a time

By: Sandi Mulconry
Photo of Dejah Powell ’18 (left) and Nancy Chau, Dyson professor (right); Powell launched Greening Chicago with the help of the S2 Scholars Program
Dejah Powell ’18 (left) and Nancy Chau, Dyson professor (right); Powell launched Greening Chicago with the help of the S2 Scholars Program

Through the Dyson School’s Societal Solutions (S2) Scholars Program, students engage with social problems and devise solutions that run the gamut from apps to urban gardens. As they follow their passions and refine their career goals, they help to create a better world.

The program, established in 2015 with a generous gift from an anonymous donor, “provides seed funding for students looking to do something real,” said Dyson professor Nancy Chau, who serves as S2 faculty advisor and chairs the evaluation committee. Five S2 Scholars are selected each year and receive $5,000 for the first summer and up to $25,000 over two-and-a-half years, depending on project needs. “We work with them to ensure that the money is spent wisely,” Chau said. In addition to funding, S2 Scholars receive guidance from faculty mentors and other subject experts.

While an initial focus of the program was to place students in internships, S2 Scholars now take a more active role in setting their agendas. “Students come to us with their own ideas,” Chau said. “They already have their own apps that they want to develop, they have their own books that they want to write, they have their own companies that they want to run that also have a societal purpose.”

“Our objective is to take students however far, however deep they want to go,” she said, noting that “three of every five projects continue on after the summer experience.”

Chau said proposals need not be polished to be accepted. “If you’re interested in learning about something, or thinking about the feasibility of doing something, you’re welcome to apply,” she said. “We encourage students to experiment with different concepts.”

The deadline for the next round of applications is Feb. 28. Learn more here.

Read on for the stories of three students representing the first three classes of Dyson S2 Scholars.

Delivering Apps: Aditya Agashe ’17, 2015 Dyson S2 Scholar

After missing the last TCAT from the mall left Aditya (Adi) Agashe and a friend walking three miles back to campus on a cold, snowy day, he realized that Cornellians needed an easier, less expensive way to get food and other items delivered from off campus. The following summer, Agashe joined with ILR student Michelle Jang ’17 to launch Belle Delivery, a peer-to-peer food delivery service for college students.

As they were developing the mobile app for Belle Delivery, Agashe and Jang conducted research to identify factors that affect students’ online shopping behaviors. Agashe, a computer science major in Engineering who minored in business, was also a Rawlings Scholar, which allowed the partners to tap funds from both programs. “Drawing on all the little nuances we learned, we added customizations to the app to increase customer trust and ‘stickiness’,” he said. That first round of research was followed by additional studies to learn more about students’ shopping behaviors and the factors that affect their perceptions of online shopping.

Image of Michelle Jang ’17 (left) and Adi Agashe ’17 (right), co-founders of Belle Delivery
Michelle Jang ’17 (left) and Adi Agashe ’17 (right), co-founders of Belle Delivery

Belle Delivery operated for just over a year, fulfilling about 100 orders a week at its height. But the co-founders were forced to disband the business once they had learned that they would need liability insurance to operate officially on campus. “The cheapest policy we could find was around $17,000 a year, and it scaled up from there, depending on the number of locations,” Agashe said. “That wasn’t something we could afford at the time.”

Agashe then pivoted, making Belle Applications—the company he had established to launch Belle Delivery—into a software consulting company serving start-ups and Cornell-affiliated businesses. Thanks to lessons learned from Belle Delivery, he said, “when I started building apps for clients and optimizing their business models, I always had a process in mind.”

Now a program manager at Microsoft, Agashe is one of three co-authors of Swipe to Unlock: The Non-Coder’s Guide to Technology and the Business Strategy Behind It, published in September by Belle Applications. (Agashe’s co-authors are Dyson graduate Parth Detroja ’17 and Neel Mehta.) Agashe said that the book, which one editorial review described as “our generation’s Rosetta Stone—letting even non-engineers peer into the machines and code that are changing our lives every day,” is targeted to those looking to break into product management, marketing, or business development careers at technology companies. Additional books may follow, he said.

Agashe is “really thankful” for the S2 Scholars Program, because it allowed him to stay in Ithaca the summer after his sophomore year and focus solely on his start-up. “Building something you dream of, working nonstop, constantly thinking about it, getting it out there—that whole process excites me,” he said. “That’s something I learned about myself through this journey.”

Mentoring Microbusinesses: Gabriela LeBaron ’17, 2016 Dyson S2 Scholar

Gabriela LeBaron used her S2 fellowship to support microbusinesses in Honduras and Mexico.

LeBaron, a CALS development sociology major who minored in business, first visited Honduras in January 2016 through the Dyson course Social Enterprise Development. After learning of one business’s need for a corn grinder, she applied to the S2 Scholars Program and returned to Honduras the following summer to buy the grinder, have it installed, and design a loan and repayment process that was “exactly what the business wanted.” That summer, she made two additional microfinance loans to help businesses expand production.

When she returned to Honduras a third time, in the winter of 2017, she said, “I was able to see the difference these loans had made. They changed people’s ability to feed their families. They changed despair into hope. They changed people’s countenance.”

Last summer, LeBaron started a microbusiness consulting project in Mexico, where she had lived until she was 17. At small colleges, she advised undergraduates on social entrepreneurship and sustainable development projects and gave presentations on factors that affect small businesses. She also counseled a nonprofit organization to produce multifunctional, reusable totes rather than the purse-size canvas bags they had been making for years. So far, they have not taken her up on the idea. “People can be very slow to change,” she noted.

Image of Gabriela LeBaron ’17 used the S2 Scholars Program to help support microbusinesses in Honduras and Mexico
Gabriela LeBaron ’17 used the S2 Scholars Program to help support microbusinesses in Honduras and Mexico

While she was working in Mexico, LeBaron saw that business incubators there “don’t help the very poorest, and they don’t help NGOs [non-governmental organizations].” To meet their needs, she conceptualized an online community that, for a small membership fee, would connect small organizations and start-ups with volunteer advisors. She then hired a Mexican IT company to start work on the website. Despite running out of grant money, she said, “I was super-passionate about it and was determined to find a way to make it work.”

An illness in her family brought LeBaron back home to Austin, where she is now seeking a full-time position with a business consulting firm. “On the side,” she said, she will continue to advance the project—securing funding, lining up advisors, and building the site. “I have no idea how to plan for how big or small it’s going to be,” she said. “It could turn into a monster. Or it could stay small.”

She credits the S2 Scholars experience with creating a new paradigm for her future. “I learned that I want to mentor people, which is something I hadn’t considered,” she said. “It gave me a new idea about social entrepreneurship. And it launched my project, which I think I’ll be working on for a very long time to come.”

Growing a Solution to Food Deserts: Dejah Powell ’18, 2017 Dyson S2 Scholar

For CALS student Dejah Powell ’18, food is a source of not only nourishment, but power.

Powell, an environmental and sustainability sciences major with a minor in business, grew up on Chicago’s South Side, whose neighborhoods are riddled with “food deserts.” Riding the train each day to high school, she’d watch the food landscape change as McDonald’s and Burger King gave way to Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Chipotle’s, and a host of other options.

At the same time, she saw her community torn apart by high rates of poverty and violent crime, low academic achievement, and poor health—problems related to food access.

While taking the course Social Entrepreneurs, Innovators, and Problem Solvers in the Dyson School, she became interested in growing food in areas of the inner city that lack access to fresh produce. Her S2 proposal was to launch Greening Chicago, a program to grow food in such unconventional places as front lawns, back yards, and vacant lots, make it available at affordable prices, and create a local economy around locally grown food.

An internship last summer with the Sweet Water Foundation, a nonprofit organization on Chicago’s South Side, taught her about urban agriculture and the “back end” of food production. This fall, she conducted additional research on food deserts and food distribution in Chicago.

Image of Dejah Powell ’18 (left) and Nancy Chau, Dyson professor (right); Powell launched Greening Chicago with the help of the S2 Scholars Program
Dejah Powell ’18 (left) and Nancy Chau, Dyson professor (right); Powell launched Greening Chicago with the help of the S2 Scholars Program

“I’ve seen how growing food is more complicated than I thought,” she said. “It takes a lot of people and a lot of energy to find or invest in spaces in the city where food can be grown, or to connect with organizations that are already growing food. I’ve also learned about issues relating to distribution and the complexities of pricing. It’s so much more nuanced than just growing food.”

Her thinking was further shaped by two experiences, one a study-abroad semester during which she learned about climate change and its coming impact on food systems and food security in Morocco, Vietnam, and Bolivia, and the other the Dyson course Entrepreneurial Marketing and Strategy, which reinforced the importance of knowing your customers.

As a Rawlings Scholar, Powell will spend the upcoming winter break conducting interviews in Chicago “to learn from community residents about their food experiences and extract solutions they may have.” In the spring, she will reshape the project and design a new business plan “so that I can be as effective and impactful as possible with the work I hope to do once I graduate.”

“Ultimately, I hope to use food to bring people together, and to liberate them from a system that can be oppressive,” she said.

Greening Chicago is not Powell’s first entrepreneurial venture, by the way. She also founded Get Them to the Green, a nonprofit organization whose programs foster a love for the environment among Chicago youth—a love she herself developed as a child, on fishing trips with her father.

— By Sandi Mulconry, a freelance writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

Headshot of Sandi Mulconry

Sandi Mulconry

Sandi Mulconry is founder and principal of Group M Communications, a public relations consultancy in Skaneateles, NY, that serves institutions of higher education and the travel/tourism sector. Before founding Group M Communications in 2005, she held a variety of communications posts at Syracuse University, her alma mater, and served seven years as associate vice president for university communications.

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