21st annual MIT IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge supports students leading social innovation

IDEAS awards more than $50,000 in grants across six student-led teams to develop projects addressing social and environmental challenges.

Over the past 21 years, the MIT PKG Center’s IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge has awarded over $1.1 million in funding to over 200 student-led teams addressing social and environmental challenges globally. Through the work of these extraordinary teams, more than half of which are still active today, IDEAS has impacted over 2.5 million people.

In celebration of this incredible community of students, alumni, judges, and mentors, IDEAS held its first-ever hybrid award ceremony on Sunday, April 24 at the MIT Media Lab. After two years of hosting IDEAS ceremonies virtually due to the pandemic, the PKG Center team was thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to celebrate in person with the many community members who make this program possible.

This year’s ceremony was dedicated to the late Shirley McBay, co-founder of the PKG Public Service Center. McBay was a trailblazer for women of color in STEM and higher education. A mathematician by training, she served as the first Black dean of student affairs at MIT and was committed to making universities a place where students of color could succeed and thrive, stating, “America must end the educational neglect that wastes so much talent among minority students because ending that neglect is not only morally right, it is essential to America’s future.”

True to her visionary nature and dedication to justice, she co-founded one of the nation’s first centers for public service in a university, now known as the PKG Public Service Center. Priscilla King Gray, former first lady of MIT and co-founder of the center, shared words of admiration and appreciation for McBay in a recorded message at this year’s IDEAS ceremony. Gray shared, “[Shirley] just had a way of having a good idea and putting it into action and that’s what she’s done with the center. My dream is that [MIT students will] always have time for helping others … and I think that dream was Shirley’s also — that [helping others] was a good habit to form now, and it would tide them over their whole lives.”

McBay’s legacy of change-making and advocating for equity was also embodied by the ceremony’s keynote speaker, Malia Lazu. Lazu is an award-winning strategist in diversity and inclusion. She began her career as a community organizer and founder of MassVOTE. More recently, she served as executive vice president and regional president at Berkshire Bank, where she worked to generate wealth for communities by expanding access to capital and spurring economic growth — especially in communities of color that have traditionally been left behind.

In a nod to McBay’s legacy, Lazu’s keynote address focused on centering equity in social entrepreneurship, stating, “We know that good intentions do not always lead to impact. So do you have the capacity to build impact in your social business?” She urged the student finalists to think critically about how they are defining social issues and who is involved in these conversations. She also encouraged the audience to acknowledge that even when issues are approached with good intentions, a great deal of harm can be done when equity is not at the center of the conversation. “How do we push back against uninformed definitions of success?” she asked. “What does it mean to positively affect a social issue? As someone who does DE&I work, when I read that sentence, I get scared. It’s fraught with bias — ‘positively affect,’ who decides what the positive effects are? ‘Affecting a social issue,’ who decides what a social issue is?”

Following Lazu’s address, the crowd heard updates from last year’s IDEAS grantees. Critical Healthcare Information Integration Network shared that the IDEAS grant enabled them to bring on a new team of community advisors and launch a program in northern Nigeria focused on providing access to critical medical information from maternal and community health workers. Kivuli presented on the extensive market research they have been conducting on producing high-quality steel case windows that low-skilled artisans in Nairobi can make and sell to high-end large-scale market developers. They have also made connections with training centers in Nairobi to build their network of artisans that can tap into this work. Sustainable Sea has continued its research and development and is focused on designing a low-cost, real-time monitoring system that can be scaled to cover entire seaweed farms. The Knowledge Institute (TKI) is launching Sasa, Eswatini’s version of the Common App to lower barriers to access to higher education. TKI has launched a campaign to visit individual institutions, learn more about their specific needs and challenges, and prepare for the 2022 application season. Overall, IDEAS 2021 grantees are successfully fine-tuning and adjusting their projects to best address the challenges with their communities.

The ceremony concluded with this year’s award presentations. While all teams are recipients of a $1,000 seed grant, four teams received juried grants. A group of volunteer IDEAS judges from around the world with a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences reviewed the finalists’ written proposals and conducted virtual interviews. The following teams were awarded juried grants:

  • $20,000 grant: Akavis is improving the safety and livability of affordable housing in Colombia, where low-income homeowners eligible for affordable housing received unfinished houses, by connecting new owners with affordable and speedier options to finish their homes. Akavis also benefits the informal construction workforce by providing them with opportunities to augment their skills and work in more formal settings.
  • $15,000 grant: Birth by Us is an app that aims to support expectant parents, specifically those who have been systemically oppressed in health care and other social systems, to reduce persistent and preventable maternal mortality rates in Black women. The app also provides health-care providers with comprehensive, routine quality reports incorporating patient feedback and resources to help providers make impactful changes.
  • $10,000 grant: Vaiven is a two-sided marketplace that helps borrowers and lenders match with each other across emerging economies in Latin America. Their marketplace, launching in Mexico first, helps financial institutions such as fintech banks and other non-banks offer customers the loans they need, while also providing customers with financial literacy tools.
  • $7,500 grant: Grain Box is an app that seeks to optimize the post-harvest value chain by decentralizing the storage infrastructure and market connectivity for the smallholder farmers in rural India.

Leading up to the event, 2,600-plus individuals voted for their favorite finalist team during the 2022 IDEAS Virtual Showcase in partnership with MIT Solve. The following two teams received the highest number of votes, earning them each a $2,500 crowd favorite award:

  • Making Water Visible: Pune’s Water System aims to create documentary films and other multimedia representations of water heritage, capturing the lived experiences, and voices of experts associated with the water sector, to create social change around the displacement caused by large-scale water infrastructures such as dams, long-distance pipelines, promenades, and riverfront developments.
  • Zahara for Education seeks to expand educational opportunities between Sudan and the United States. They are doing so by implementing university course partnerships, such as the MIT-Sudan Global Teaching Labs, creating connections with online learning platforms like edX, and making physical maker spaces for students in Sudan to experience hands-on learning.

Following the award presentations, PKG Center Assistant Dean for Social Innovation Rebecca Obounou shared closing remarks. Obounou highlighted the program’s transition from a “competition” into a robust  “pracademic,” both practical and academic, program in line with the PKG Center’s values of providing students ethics-rooted, rigorous experiential learning opportunities. This is demonstrated throughout the program with the educational sessions throughout the academic year and the seven-week finalist seminar series.

Going forward, all teams will work on their projects over the summer and report back by the start of the next academic year. Additionally, they will have guidance from the PKG Center and an incredible cohort of industry expert mentors. The juried grant recipients will focus on implementing their projects over the next 16 months and the IDEAS team will maintain regular contact with them during that time to help support their success. The program concluded with final recorded remarks from Priscilla King Gray to the student participants — “I would say: Three cheers for them, there’s nothing like an MIT student.”