Seven entrepreneurial speakers, including four Ashoka Fellows, pondered the theme of “Find Your Place in the Universe” from personal perspectives during a TEDx Ashoka U event at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre.
Oftentimes, one’s place in the world finds them.
Andreas Heinecke, a German Ashoka Fellow, said discovery of his family’s history as a young boy — his father was German and his mother’s Jewish relatives were killed by Nazis — affected him deeply. It made him question everything and it inspired him to research and create educational programs tied to “otherness,” breaking through prejudice and stereotypes. His work includes programs to bring more understanding, empathy and tolerance.
“Since age 13 I’ve worked to understand about exclusion. I was eager to understand,” said Heinecke, the founder and CEO of Dialogue Social Enterprise GmbH, which includes Dialogue in the Dark concept.
Billy Parish (pictured, above left), also an Ashoka Fellow, said his wife’s Indian reservation in the northern corner of Arizona wasn’t far from a coal mine. “It was hard not to think about energy because the earth was constantly shaking from the constant blasting.”
An entrepreneur whose company, Mosaic, develops clean energy projects to invest in a better environmental world, Parish provided a sobering picture.
“Most of us take energy for granted. We used energy to drive or fly to this event. We plugged our phones into an outlet last night and woke up this morning with a full charge … I heard recently that the average person thinks about energy for just six minutes a year. I’ve been thinking about energy for a long time. A decade ago I dropped out of Yale and founded the Energy Action Coalition and grew it into the largest youth clean energy organization in the world. But it wasn’t until I fell in love that I actually started to understand how the energy system worked.”
Anya Kamenetz, a higher education journalist who examines it from many different angles of change, spoke about the necessity of failure and understanding its role in the process toward achieving success and finding your place. Kamenetz demonstrated this in a fun way, showing a video clip of her baby daughter’s multiple attempts to walk on her own. It emphasized a desire to get back up and to keep trying.
“If you’re going to have a robust future and have a life where you really feel situated in the world, you really need to build in for yourself opportunities to fail in a safe way,” she said.
Alex Bernadotte was a first-generation college student at Dartmouth University, an achievement that leading up to its realization had bordered on obsession. She and her family believed that once you got into college, the difficult part of the journey was behind them.
“Boy were we wrong,” Bernadotte said. “I bombed my first year — academically, socially and financially. It was only the first step. Through sheer grit and determination and a wonderful peer network, I graduated and I went on to get a master’s degree from Stanford. My story has a happy ending, but for hundreds of thousands of students, they’re unprepared for the road ahead.”
Bernadotte, an Ashoka Fellow, is the founder and CEO of Beyond 12, a nonprofit that integrates personalized coaching with intelligent technology to increase the number of traditionally underserved students who earn a college degree.
What saved Ashoka Fellow Felipe Vergara, as a Colombian youth, was soccer. He eventually earned a degree in industrial engineering and an MBA, but what inspires him now is to provide an affordable education plan to help low-income students thrive and stay on the path to becoming anything they want to be. Vergara, co-founder and CEO of Lumni, has a genuine desire to make education possible. Lumni’s program exists in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and the United States.
“We need to invest in our youth. The world needs them and they need us,” he said.
Chris Crane (pictured, left) agrees. The CEO of Edify, Inc., a faith-based organization, has a positive attitude everywhere he goes and why not? The work that his group does in parts of Africa and Latin America address issues and provide a solution.
“The lack of access to education is one of the greatest problems today,” he said.
Edify makes small business loans to schools to educate children. The schools charge anywhere from $5-$15 per month in tuition and they repay their loans. Money from this transaction is then recycled to other schools. Crane said that loans have been given to more than 600 schools in the last few years. Students in USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) and School of Business Administration have participated in an Edify-led project in Ghana.
“It’s a long-lasting joy,” he said. “It’s a deep fulfillment when you use your talents to benefit your fellow women and men.”
The TEDx program concluded with 21-year-old Eden Full (pictured, right), a youth prodigy, who will return to Princeton University this fall after spending two ‘gap’ years as a Thiel Fellow, devoted to her solar panel tracking invention, the SunSaluter, and start-up company, Roseicollis Technologies, Inc.
“I still have much to learn and to find my place in the world,” Full said.
Her energetic talk about importance of Google and her invention, a rotating solar panel that delivers 40 percent more electricity and provides four liters of clean water, was a hit. But personally witnessing her invention’s ability to help people, particularly in Kenya, has been fulfilling for Full.
“I’ve always had the passion to build stuff, but through my trips to Kenya, I’ve found a passion for people,” she said. “To help people who need it the most helps me to find my place in the universe.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of Rodney Nakamoto