Reflections: the Changemakers Experience & CGI U

In the fall of my last year of graduate school at Tulane, my friend and classmate Elisabeth Perez approached me about a program she was interested at the Taylor Center. After telling me about the Changemakers Institute and describing the project she wanted to work on through the Institute, I was ready to sign up. As someone with 15 years in the high tech and engineering industries, I had always been curious about how startups work, and what social entrepreneurship was all about. Luckily, our application was accepted and we became part of the Changemakers cohort of 2016!

We received a warm welcome at CI for our idea of using smartphone photography as a communications curriculum tool for adolescents, and through the institute we learned the important aspects of starting a venture: from market research to funding to partnering, CI gave us the information we needed to get a solid foundation for our project. We also learned how to refine our idea, and adjusted our project to have a more realistic and flexible focus, even changing the name to ReFOCUS.

All of this learning was also applied to another project that we had become interested in. I became aware of a program called MyLondon, where Café Art, an arts organization for the homeless, handed out single-use cameras and created an art show and calendar from the resulting photos. I thought “Why not here in New Orleans?” and contacted Café Art to ask permission and guidance to implement a similar project here. The learning we were doing for ReFOCUS was easy to transfer to working with what became MyNew Orleans 2016 Photo Project, and both projects have taken on a life of their own.

Chelsea Clinton CGI U
Welcome to CGI U from Chelsea Clinton

We applied to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in Berkeley using the MyNew Orleans project, and were accepted, which meant we could attend the meetings, hear Bill and Chelsea Clinton speak with many other social innovators, and network to our hearts’ content. I applied for and received the Taylor Changemaker Catalyst Award to fund expenses for the conference, including airfare, printing, and hotel costs.

The conference was held on the University of California-Berkeley campus. We heard so many great thinkers there: Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton were part of every main plenary and panel, and interviewed some inspirational thinkers, including the founders of Pinterest, the Khan Academy,, a NASA astronaut, and one of the Egyptian social media activists most crucial to the Arab Spring uprising. We attended workshops with representatives from Indigogo, the Stanford Foundation, and the Clinton Global Initiative. We met other students from all over the globe who had great ventures focusing on women’s education, student homelessness, anti-discrimination, the use of arts in schools, health and hunger, and many more. We learned about strategies focusing on fundraising, marketing/storytelling, use of media, and networking. We heard stories of failures, successes, and everything in between. Takeaway messages that resonated with us included admonitions to celebrate small victories, have the courage to create, don’t waste inspiration, and be alive to other possibilities in your life.

Elisabeth and Heather manning the booth at the CGI U Expo
Elisabeth and Heather showcasing MyNew Orleans Photo Project at the CGI U Expo

As Ben Silbermann, the co-founder and CEO of Pinterest explained, we need to act even if we do not succeed because eventually we will achieve our goals, and you may need to find allies in unlikely places. We came away from CGI U with some important questions: Am I ready to regularly challenge my core assumptions? How much of my values are up for negotiation to achieve my goal? Effective leadership is costly, so what am I willing to sacrifice, who am I willing to alienate and conversely, form partnerships with? How can I continue to use my voice and actions to fight against injustice?

With the completion of the Changemakers Institute, Elisabeth and I are confident about moving forward with our ventures, and we know that Taylor will continue to be our home – the place we come to get advice, debrief after failures, and celebrate our victories, both large and small!