Shooting for the Moon, 2017 Moonshot Fellows: The New Wave of Social Entrepreneurs

 Students brainstorming ideas at the Moonshot House. Photo courtesy of Wes Edwards ’18.
Students brainstorming ideas at the Moonshot House. Photo courtesy of Wes Edwards ’18.

Before heading off to their various summer internships and vacations, on Sunday, May 14th, 34 Claremont Colleges students (31 CMC, 2 Scripps, 1 Pomona) headed down to Lake Elsinore for a once in a lifetime opportunity. The group spent the next week together learning from each other and the seven accomplished social entrepreneurs living with them for the week. The program in its inaugural year, run by the Social Innovation and Impact Office of the Kravis Leadership Institute (KLI) at Claremont McKenna College, was called the “Moonshot House Retreat” named because Moonshot thinking addresses a huge problem and proposes a radical solution using breakthrough techniques, models and technologies that can change and disrupt systems for the better. The hope was that by the end of the week, the students would be inspired to change the world for the better, begin to learn the skills necessary for that to happen, as well as built a strong network of similarly minded peers. The week that followed the initial bus ride was beyond anyone’s greatest expectations.

On Sunday afternoon the group arrived at the spectacular beachfront home located on the shore of Lake Elsinore, the property offered a huge kitchen (important as the students cooked breakfast every day), plenty of outdoor deck space, a lawn big enough for morning yoga and spikeball, and a beach volleyball court. In talking about the location, Gemma Bulos, Director of Social Innovation and Impact at KLI, stressed that they felt it was important for the students to feel that they were in a relaxing and creative environment, especially coming off the heels of final exams. After a relaxed afternoon of getting to know one another, the group gathered to listen to the stories of the social entrepreneurs who would be mentoring them over the course of the coming week. To put it simply, the group was an all-star cast of Echoing Green Fellows. Echoing Green, an organization who works as a catalyst for change by recognizing and investing in the most innovative social entrepreneurs who are solving the world’s most pressing problems, has recognized these changemakers who are changing and shaping the future around the globe. Alongside Gemma and Scott Sherman, Senior Director of Social Innovation and Co-Curricular Programming at KLI, their fellow Echoing Green Fellows included Mark Hanis a “serial entrepreneur” who began his first enterprise, Genocide Intervention Network, while still a Junior at Swarthmore, Rose Wang and Laura D’Asaro, co-founders of Six Foods, a company that makes chips out of cricket flour that was featured on Shark Tank, Kalimah Priforce, founder of Qeyno Labs, a group that empowers black youth through coding and hackathons, and Lauren Burke, founder of Atlas: DIY, a cooperative empowerment center for immigrant youth and their allies that offers college and legal resources. As a special surprise, Cheryl Dorsey, the President of Echoing Green, was also able to spend a few hours with the group Sunday evening. This type unfettered access and one-on-one mentorship with some of the most successful social entrepreneurs in the country is unparalleled and beyond any of the students’ wildest dreams.

Over the next five days, the students learned what it meant to be a social entrepreneur, the challenges along the way, but also the tools that it took to begin thinking about how to create a social enterprise that could change the world. These “moonshot” ideas were what the retreat was named for, and in Scott’s words, were supposed to be ideas that could “…affect up to a billion people.”

The first real workshop day, Monday, was all about creativity. The students were asked what the biggest problems facing the world were, what their talents were, and how they could solve them. The solutions didn’t have to be realistic, or even practical—the goal was just to get the students to begin dreaming bigger. On Tuesday, students spent the day finding their own stories. They were asked to think about what challenges they had faced through their lives, and ultimately, what issues they were passionate about solving. These stories were then shared with the entire group. To quote Sydney Baffour ’20, “Hearing everyone’s story and understanding their background not only brought the group together, but also made me reflect on myself and where I was going…It was a truly humbling experience.” By Wednesday morning, the students had tentative ideas about what issue they wanted to tackle, and how they were going to go about creating a social enterprise to solve this issue. The rest of the day was spent iterating on these ideas—which sometimes involved writing out a full plan on a giant whiteboard and then realizing it wasn’t going to work and erasing all of it. The unofficial motto of the day was: fail hard, fail fast, fail often. On Thursday students refined their ideas and began practicing a one-minute pitch for their idea. The students went to bed not knowing that a huge surprise was coming on Friday.

The next morning, after one final round of pitch practice, the group boarded a bus and headed into downtown LA to the US Bank Tower. Once there, they took the elevator up to the top floor. Each student then slid down the glass slide that runs outside the building; the thinking being that if you can go down a glass slide off the edge of a 70 story building, giving a pitch should be a piece of cake. After the slide, the students were split up into six groups where they each gave their pitch. From there, each group voted on a winner to go on to a final round where they would compete for prizes. Some of which included asking Mark Cuban for advice about their startup, and spending time with Cheryl Dorsey to talk about their enterprise. These were just two examples of the six—each finalist won an incredible mentorship prize. The final ideas pitched on the top of the US Bank Tower, the tallest building in LA and the closest to the moon you can get in the city, were highly varied and very polished. Listening to the students speak one would be hard pressed to believe that they had only come up with, and designed these ideas, in the last few days. The pitches ranged from aquaponics at the middle school level to a “sustainable etsy” that allowed Indian women to sell their wares directly to the global market to an after school debate and politics empowerment program designed to get more students of color running for political office. The pitches were truly more than anyone could’ve hoped for at the end of one week.

As students came to realize on the first day of the program, each of us has an incredible, unique set of skills and passions. On one of the walls in the Moonshot House hung the quote by Aristotle, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” I cannot think of a more appropriate way to sum up the incredible conversations and general feeling left at the end of this incredible week.

The 2017 Kravis Leadership Institute Moonshot House was the most incredible program I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. With the formation of the Social Innovation and Impact Office, the Moonshot House, signals a somewhat new direction for KLI and perhaps CMC as a whole. Next year, KLI will launch a series of new social innovation related programs through the Social Innovation and Impact Office. Additionally, the student group impACT has been drastically revamped for the upcoming year; the group’s mission is to foster social entrepreneurship through networking, workshops, and competitions such as the Hult Prize. Taken together these should have a significant impact in raising the profile of social innovation at Claremont McKenna College.

A special thanks to Angelica Ferreira, KLI Events Logistics Coordinator. The program would not have been possible without the incredible logistical work of Angelica Ferreira.