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USD Partners With San Diego Leaders to Bring Mentorship to Women Innovators

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Brittany Catton Kirk, with service dog, Magnus, is one of the women innovators who has been mentored by San Diego leaders as a result of her participation in the 2020 Fowler Global Social Innovaton Challenge.

For social entrepreneurs, sound guidance can be hard to come by, yet it’s critical for starting and scaling a successful venture. That’s why University of San Diego’s Center for Peace and Commerce (CPC) recently added post-competition mentorship to the valuable coaching that student teams have always received up through competing in the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge (Fowler GSIC).

Since 2011, the CPC has hosted the Fowler GSIC, a competition that inspires student entrepreneurs around the world to connect and create sustainable business solutions to global issues. It culminates in the Global Finals, where students pitch to a live audience and a panel of expert judges. The top teams can earn up to $50,000 in seed funding, plus in-kind prizes ranging from free working space to training and software. 

But in 2020, a highly coveted new in-kind prize was up for grabs – the opportunity for up to six teams with a woman founder to receive additional mentorship from some of San Diego’s leading women social innovators. Namely, Heather Marie Burke, Director of Investor Relations at Mission Driven Finance and founder of girltank; Karen Henken, a lecturer at USD’s Kroc School and a visiting professor at UNIMINUTO Colombia; Kimberlee Centera, CEO at TerraPro Solutions; and Virginia Merrifield, Trustee at e3 Civic High School.

Each of these mentors were hand-selected by the CPC because of their strong experience and networks within the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and their belief in the importance of lifting, encouraging, strengthening, and promoting the next generation of women innovators.

"Women social entrepreneurs are inherent disruptors,” said Burke. “When they thrive, we all do better. Building dedicated spaces like the CPC Women Innovators program that elevate women's voices, ventures, and ideas are essential to creating environments where women social entrepreneurs can emerge, collaborate, and thrive."

Juliet Zimmer, Coordinator of the CPC, runs the Fowler GSIC and was involved in bringing this in-kind prize to fruition. “We believe that women innovators have enormous potential to shape a more peaceful and prosperous future, and they should be resourced accordingly,” Zimmer said. “So we wanted to create a space for Fowler GSIC Global Finalists to be able to continue benefiting from the support of this competition, even after its formal conclusion in June.”

And benefit they have. The two 2020 Fowler Global Finalists who won the in-kind mentorship prize – Brittany Kirk of Sunlight U, and Dr. Sierra Simpson of BrilliantBiome – have treasured the quarterly meetings with their mentors. In each one-hour session, the mentees have used the time to share their challenges as well as opportunities to continue growing their ventures. In turn, the mentors have offered guidance rooted in decades of collective experience, plus connections to resources and relevant contacts from their extensive networks. 

“The mentorship that I've received has been enlightening and enthusiastic,” said Simpson. “As a scientist by training, these amazing women have given me a crash course in everything from finance to business. Every meeting has been a huddle of bright women with a mission to make the world a better place through their unique expertise. Heather Burke has been essential for finding the best path forward to fund and grow my business and connect me with networks that support my strengths. The CPC and Fowler GSIC were two of the biggest supporters of BrilliantBiome when it was in its infancy. It is invaluable to have the perspective of women who have been through the process and are committed to similar ideals.”

Kirk agrees. “It is incredibly important to keep the momentum going, and this group of women helps motivate me and keep me accountable. With COVID-19, it can be harder to stay on track. I have been pushing to stay on target to present to a connection I was introduced to by one of the CPC Women Innovators. It is so great to have that motivation and connection in a global pandemic.”

Outcomes from a single mentorship session have included feedback on a refined pitch, specific tasks related to how to get a better understanding of a target customer, introductions to contacts who can offer input about a proposed pricing or licensing model, and tips for how to secure advisors to help a social venture flourish. 

"When you're building your business, you're quickly tasked with being an expert in everything from legal to marketing,” said Burke. “Sure, women entrepreneurs make it happen on their own all the time. But with a community of mentors like those through CPC Women Innovators, women entrepreneurs can get to where we're going a lot faster."

The CPC structured the in-kind prize so that the relationships are driven by the mentees. The mentees consider their career development and the growth of their social ventures, then plan and prepare accordingly for each session in order to make the best use of the mentors’ time. They also commit to receiving feedback graciously, to establishing SMART goals befitting their ventures, to putting forth effort to apply the advice offered by the mentor, and to sharing the results of what happened. 

“We’re nearing the end of our pilot year, and we’re really encouraged both by the results of the Fowler GSIC, and these mentorship sessions,” said Zimmer. Both Sunlight U and BrilliantBiome continue to grow. In fact, following the 2020 Fowler Global Finals, BrilliantBiome won two more pitch competitions, including the 2021 UC Startup Innovation Challenge Social Impact prize, and the UCSD International Global Entrepreneur Accelerator pitch competition. Kirk found so much value from the 2020 Fowler GSIC that she has decided to participate again in 2021.

Zimmer hopes the Fowler GSIC will continue to attract, reward, and support social innovators, both men and women. Since 2011, the Fowler GSIC has connected more than 2,500 students from more than countries around the world - including Australia, South Korea, Rwanda, Ghana, Ireland, Mexico, and Peru - recognizing their outstanding social ventures based on positive impact and financial sustainability. To date, it has distributed more than $500,000 to seed the most innovative and promising global ventures. 

The 2021 Fowler GSIC formally kicked off in February with 30 universities from 16 countries – more than any prior year. The USD Finals are scheduled for April 28, and the Global Finals will occur at the University of St. Thomas on June 12. 


Justin Prugh
(619) 260-7573

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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