Maddineni’s efforts as a part of the Oxford Challenge are one example of Harris’ increasing commitment to social entrepreneurship to effect change.

Honor killings occur when a young girl or woman is killed by her family members for actions that allegedly dishonored the family values. Offenses that dishonor a family can range from the way a girl or woman dresses, having an extramarital affair, refusing arranged marriage, or marrying outside of her caste. The U.N. reports that 5,000 honor killings take place globally each year. However, there is evidence that this is a low estimate due to underreporting and cover-ups by police, government officials, and communities.

Thulasi Maddineni, MPP Class of 2020, had long been interested in the topic, and wanted to do something about it. In January, she approached Ron Gibbs, a lecturer at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and faculty advisor for social entrepreneurship with the idea of submitting a proposal addressing the problem of honor killings in India to The Oxford Challenge, which calls on students to compete by deeply exploring an issue that matters and sharing those findings with the world in order to make an impact. 

Gibbs immediately saw the merits of her proposal and encouraged her to pursue it, beginning a mentoring relationship for the next five months.

“The Oxford Challenge encourages students to think comprehensively in addressing a complex social problem by 'mapping the system,'” Gibbs says. Students are required to identify all the key stakeholders and the “gaps” that exist in the system which are barriers to implementing viable solutions to the problem.

“Rarely is there a single solution to a major social problem. A topic like honor killings is very complex requiring rigorous analysis in “mapping the system” to meet the Oxford Challenge high standards to foster viable social change.” Gibbs adds.

Shakti, started by Harris students Meghana Chandra and Mariana Botero, tied for second place and earned $15,000 in the 2018 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC).

Maddineni and her teammates began the project with research to identify key stakeholders and understand how they interact with and influencer each other. There are a number of stakeholders in a dynamic honor killing landscape – including administrators in the Indian government, the police, the courts, elected officials, civic organizations, social caste-based groups, and the media.

Maddineni and her team worked from January to April on research, and she wrote the report over spring break. “I didn’t step out of my house for the entire week,” she said. “I wrote up my draft, and I made my submission to Oxford. In mid-May, we found out that our team had been selected.” 

The Oxford Challenge featured finalists from twenty universities from around the world and included Harvard, Yale and Northwestern among the seven teams from the US. Maddineni’s team was chosen to compete from the seven Harris teams that submitted proposals.  

While in the end the Harris team did not win the top spot in Oxford, for Maddineni it is only the beginning.  A teammate of hers is soon moving back to India and they plan to continue working on the issue of ending honor killings. But for a handful of variables, things could have been different, very different in Maddineni’s life – Maddineni says she has a very personal connection to the issue that inspires her to continue to want to make a difference.

Maddineni’s experience with the competition is an example of Harris’ commitment to providing opportunities for students to pursue social entrepreneurship, a rapidly growing area of interest at many universities for the last several years.

In the last five years, Harris students have participated in various social entrepreneurship competitions, including the Booth Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC), the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), and the Oxford Challenge. Through participation in these programs, Harris students hone their research skills and design programs that have measurable social impact. 

That kind of impact is needed in India where honor killings continue to persist, Maddineni says.

“India is at a crossroads where we can take the journey and become a middle-income country, or we can just muddle our way around,” Maddineni said. 

“Women are an important part of the journey in India,” she continued. “Women’s issues need to have greater importance if India is to move ahead. Being a woman, this issue resonated with me. I have seen how women are continuously subjugated in India. Even in the so-called well-off families, women may not get the lives they want.”

“The solution to this problem is education; we’re talking about a social transformation of the mindset,” she said. “I’m now thinking about how we can make this into a self-sustaining social program.” For her, “One honor killing is too many. We need to end all honor killings now.”

“This can be fixed,” Maddineni said.

Ron Gibbs
Ron Gibbs

Harris has been very successful in participating in various social entrepreneurship competitions the last five years. It has won first or second place with Booth SNVC three times and won numerous awards at CGI U international meetings. 

Looking forward, Gibbs believes that the Oxford Challenge, Booth SNVC, CGI U and other competitions will continue to be valuable opportunities for students seeking to bring about social change and to impact on public policy. Indeed, they can be a valuable takeaway for students from their Harris experience.

All of these initiatives can challenge, enlighten, and inspire students as they address the question of how best to leverage a public policy degree. As it turns out, the possibilities for making the world a better place are endless.

Those with an idea for bringing about social change, and interested in social entrepreneurship opportunities at Harris, should contact Ron Gibbs for more information.