Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah, MAIDP'21

Two Harris students’ idea to teach women in rural India basic financial skills in a chatbot-led course accessible on a cellphone was singled out for special attention at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) earlier this year.

Chelsea Clinton wanted to know more about the idea from Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah and Kadambari Shah, both MAIDP‘21. Theirs was one of five proposals — from among hundreds — chosen for presentation to Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, which launched CGIU in 2007. 

Kadambari Shah, MAIDP'21

This year, more than 700 students attended the livestreamed CGIU in late March where Clinton was joined by her parents — former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — and other leaders including Vice President Kamala Harris.  

It’s all about “the power of an idea,” said Ron Gibbs, the Harris School of Public Policy’s program director for Policy Entrepreneurship and Competitions and the principal adviser to students competing at CGIU and other international competitions.

CGIU, like the annual Map the System Challenge at Oxford and the annual Social New Challenge Venture run by Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and the Polsky Center, aims to inspire university students to come up with bold ideas to solve global problems. 

In the eight years Harris has been participating in CGIU, nearly 60 of its teams, with almost 200 students, have made it through the rigorous selection process to share their idea, or Commitments to Action as CGIU calls them, said Gibbs. Harris students have also won the Booth competition and been finalists at Oxford.

“We’ve got a great track record,” he said, adding that in 2018 the University of Chicago hosted CGIU, which is held at universities around the world when there’s not a pandemic.

CGIU, he said, covers “a mosaic of issues,” with students tackling topics ranging from the opioid crisis in the United States to telemedicine in Ghana to financial literacy, human rights and women’s issues in India, which is what Inbah Rajah and Shah chose.


They decided on their project while studying remotely during their first quarter — Inbah Rajah in Malaysia and Shah in India. They became friends, they said, clicking after realizing that among 28 Harris classmates from nearly 20 countries, they had time zones in common.

Additionally, Shah said, “we are both very passionate about gender issues given the rather patriarchal societies that we come from.” That led them to explore ways to bridge the gap in experiences among women like themselves, who come from modern urban areas, and the millions of women in poor, rural communities in South and Southeast Asia.

“Having worked for a couple of years before coming to Harris,” Shah said, “we both knew the independence and empowerment that come with earning your own money and managing your own savings.” 

So they got to work on the CGIU proposal, doing much of the heavy lifting during winter break. 

A photo of Ronald Gibbs
Ronald Gibbs, Program Director, Policy Entrepreneurship and Competitions

For the project, which is still in the ideation stage, they selected India, centering efforts in the state of Maharashtra. They titled it Swadheen, which in Hindi means self-reliant, they said. WhatsApp, whose bot could be programmed into major languages spoken in Maharashtra such as Hindi and Marathi, was the lesson-delivery method. And they targeted women, specifically millennials, who’d be able to access lessons about banking accounts and saving tips on a mobile phone. Regardless of income level, many women in South and Southeast Asia have a cellphone with internet access, they said. 

Key to the success of the plan, they said, would be partnering with government stakeholders and nongovernmental organizations. Backing from female public figures, such as celebrities, would be one way, they added, to gain traction with the approximately 25 million women they aim to bring the lessons to.

Inbah Rajah and Shah said they got two days’ notice that they would be presenting their idea to Chelsea Clinton as part of a 45-minute session with four other groups.

“Chelsea Clinton is a huge advocate for gender initiatives,” said Inbah Rajah, citing one reason Clinton’s interest was piqued. The project’s technology angle, which Shah noted, was also of interest. Clinton emphasized to them, they said, that women must be at the center of recovery after the pandemic. 

It was a nice affirmation, said Inbah Rajah, who like Shah is undecided about post-graduation plans. Both said they were being realistic about the hard work that launching the financial empowerment project would require. 

“Our classmates at Harris have done some amazing things so we know that it is possible to make it happen,” Inbah Rajah said. “We are optimistic. But we know that it’s not a sprint. It can’t be done in a year. We’re realistic about that.”

Not all CGIU Commitments to Action become reality, said Gibbs, adding that CGIU is  “a stepping stone, a credential that can be leveraged for success.”

"The end-game," he added, "is that students leave the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting energized to make a difference in the world."