Student Policy Entrepreneurs Aim for Broad Social Impact

This year’s student policy competitions got off to a remarkable start with a $10,000 prize at the University of Pennsylvania Fels School of Government’s fourth-annual Public Policy Challenge. Second-year MPP student Aviva Rosman and her business partner Alex Niemczewski won first place in the national competition, held in Philadelphia March 19–20, beating teams from nine of the nation’s top public affairs schools. The prize money will help grow BallotReady, a free online and mobile service that equips voters with details on candidates.

“It was very affirming to win in a public policy context, because it meant that not only did people think this was a good business idea but they also thought it was a good policy idea,” Rosman says. She added that the prize money will enable BallotReady to reach more voters throughout the primary season and build out new features to improve user experience and experiment with shareability.

“The Fels competition proved to be a great opportunity and platform for the BallotReady team to focus attention on their very timely proposal,” says Ron Gibbs, Harris lecturer and faculty adviser for the student competitions. “The team presented a solid implementation strategy and business plan to roll out the program nationally and to ensure financial sustainability. It was a great win for the team and Harris in competing against other public policy schools including Cornell, Brown, Georgetown, NYU, Berkeley, and Penn, among others.”

Another group of Harris students with ideas on how to improve the lives of people around the world, from Syrian refugees to modern-day slaves in Pakistan, were among 1,000 students at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting April 1-3.

President Clinton developed the initiative to foster student ideas in the areas of education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation and public health. More than $900,000 in funding is available to turn promising proposals into action.

Eight Harris teams composed of 16 students—by far the most in the three years the school has participated—attended the meeting, held at the University of California, Berkeley, in the hopes that their ideas could be funded and possibly become businesses.

“This is an opportunity to solve real-world problems through proper analysis and solutions that are both implementable and sustainable,” says Gibbs. “That’s what the students get excited about. They’re taking the skills they get from Harris—the problem-solving, the real-world data analysis—to look at a problem and build a model that can work in varying environments.”

The Harris students who attended the CGI-U event presented an impressively wide range of proposals, including:

Proposal: A Channel to Social Security: Covering Domestic Workers in South Korea
Team: Ernesto Tiburcio (MPP’17) and Hyunkyung Koo (MPP’17) 
Problem: Korean domestic workers—who are not covered by the protections of the country’s labor laws—are often paid less and work under otherwise illegal conditions.
Solution: Create an intermediary agency bound by labor laws to hire domestic workers and pair them with households. The agency would serve as a model that other agencies could adopt.
Hyunkyung says: “Even though we cannot change the whole system at once, we hope to change people’s thoughts about domestic workers, show a business model with better service and better working conditions, and improve the rights of domestic workers, who are mostly women in poverty.”

Proposal: Allocaid: Improving Medical Care Access in Syrian Refugee Camps in Jordan
Team: Marianne Shehara Waas (MSESP’16) and Salwa Shameem (MPP’16)
Problem: More than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan lack sufficient medical care in part because it has become difficult to match needs with resources.
Solution: Evaluate needs and resources in the camps and develop an algorithm and interactive map that matches medical resources to the places they can do the most good.
Salwa says: “We were especially concerned with how poor health might implicate refugee women, children and adolescents who require immediate physical care, but also psychosocial support to deal with the trauma of war.”

Proposal: Violence Against Women Center in Punjab, Pakistan
Team: Hafsah Lak (MPP’17)
Problem: Instances of rape, murder and other types of violence against women are high in Punjab, but conviction rates are below 3 percent due to lack of medical and legal training, victim intimidation and few resources.
Solution: Establish a 24-hour, women-run facility that coordinates comprehensive medical and legal aid to women who are raped and/or assaulted, and improve evidence collection, medical care and victim rehabilitation.
Hafsah says: “It will be a first line of defense for victims, and will provide immediate relief to and protection to them with zero interference from outside.”

Proposal: #ReclaimJihad
Team: Aseal Tineh (MPP’17) and Ala Tineh (Economics)
Problem: False rhetoric and impassioned critics have used the word “jihad” incorrectly to perpetuate negative, Islamophobic images of Muslim-Americans, alienating them from U.S. society and political participation.
Solution: Develop a Chicago organization that empowers Muslim-American youth to become active in the political system by providing tools they can use to combat stereotypes and incorrect images of jihad, which is more accurately a struggle for self-improvement.
Ala says: “As young Muslim American women, we, like many, are deeply disappointed by the status quo. #ReclaimJihad is a commitment to empower Muslim-American youth to right this false dialogue that continues to alienate the Muslim-American population.”

Proposal: S-Match: Connecting People with Real Time Opportunities in Lima, Peru
Team: Pablo Aguirre (MPP’17), Aldo Belmont (MPP’17) and Geraldine Garcia (MPP’17)
Problem: Many in Latin America are underemployed because they cannot afford commutes or the cost of moving to places where they are employable. At the same time, textile and construction companies have difficulty finding qualified workers in their areas.
Solution: Develop a program that matches the needs of businesses in Lima, Peru, with qualified workers or people who can be trained for the jobs.
Pablo says: “Firms in the construction and textile sector are demanding high amounts of workforce but are not being able to satisfy their demand. Our business model has the potential to fill that gap.”

Proposal: Improving Mental Health for China’s Left-Behind Children
Team: Nini Gu (MPP’17) and Shilin Liu (MPP’17)
Problem: More than 61 million Chinese children are left behind in rural villages as their parents follow migrant work. Those children are significantly more likely to suffer mental health complications, including an increase in attempted suicides.
Solution: Develop a set of collaborative extracurricular activities for rural schools that children can participate in with peers, teachers and relatives to strengthen their mental, social and emotional health.
Shinlin says: “I want to encourage and help the left-behind children to build open, caring and positive social relationships with their peers, teachers, grandparents, community and their remote parents.”

Proposal: Poverty Alleviation by Empowering Microfinance Borrowers in Ecuador
Team: Fumiaki Ebihara (MPP’16), Masahiro Mamiya (MPP’16) and Ain Sanchez (MPP’16)
Problem: As microloans have become easier to obtain, their interest rates have risen to nearly 100 percent in some places. Borrowers either cannot afford those loans to start businesses, or they borrow to pay off other loans, leading to a spiral of debt.
Solution: Establish an organization that collects information about entrepreneurs and connects them with lenders who can offer reasonable interest rates.
Ain says: “We aim to offer financial tools that would help microlenders push their business ideas and gather more quality information, to allow banks to lower their interests on microloans and to protect themselves from credit-default risk.”

Proposal: Bonding for Freedom in Pakistan
Team: Shafia Imtiaz (MPP’16)
Problem: Impoverished Pakistanis who have borrowed money at exorbitant interest rates cannot pay off their debts and are forced into bonded labor, a form of modern-day slavery. Even if freed by NGOs, they borrow again when necessary to survive.
Solution: Develop a microfinance program that pays off debts of bonded people and offers small loans at affordable rates to those in need.
Shafia says: “I hope to improve the lives of a few people in the region and want to expand the project in the future by setting up an organization.”

—Brian Wallheimer