Here Are Your 2016 Inherent Prize Finalists

These are the people changing the world and getting rightfully recognized for their efforts.

One of these movers and shakers will be awarded with the Inherent Prize in recognition of their social entrepreneurship. The grand-prize winner receives $50,000, with the runner-up nabbing $25,000. Get to know more about each below, and check back after November 15th to read about the winner.

1
Karim Abouelnaga

Providing summer learning opportunities to low-income kids
While applying for scholarships to Cornell University, Karim Abouelnaga began researching the achievement gap in education. The disparities, he found, cost over $300 billion each year — “the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,” he says. He started connecting those numbers with his classmates from New York City’s public schools. “I grew up in the communities that the reports were talking about, and I was deeply frustrated to learn about the inequality that existed.” After graduation, he returned home to start Practice Makes Perfect, a nonprofit summer school that pairs elementary and middle school students with high-achieving high school mentors. To date, the organization has kept 2,000 low-income students learning throughout the summer break from classes.

What do you wish someone had told you before you launched your business?
You don’t have to please everyone. In fact, it’s not possible. I was such a people-pleaser when I started, and I lost a lot of sleep early on in the journey. At the end of the day, doing the right thing and making the best decisions for our students and the organization were more important.

How do you envision your work evolving in the future?
We want to redefine what summer learning looks like for all children. School should be cool. Teachers shouldn’t feel like babysitters, and kids shouldn’t feel like they’re being punished when they’re in school over the summer.

Where is your favorite place in the world?
My mom’s house in Queens on Sunday evenings. Every Sunday night, my full family comes together to catch up and have dinner. I’m the second oldest of seven children, and when I’m around my family I feel loved and have a much bigger capacity to love. Going to my mom’s place and seeing the conditions she lives in is also a reminder of why I work so hard every day to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity at receiving a high-quality education.

2
Chike Aguh

Granting internet access to all Americans
As the son of Nigerians who came here to study at US universities, Chike Aguh appreciates the value Americans place on education and economic opportunity. But he also knows that for many citizens, not having the internet at home can limit future success. One in five Americans lack access, which inhibits students from finishing homework, applying for college scholarships or networking for jobs. As CEO of EveryoneOn, Aguh directs customers to low-cost internet providers, trains families in digital literacy and lobbies legislators to join in ending the digital divide. Next year, the Washington, D.C., nonprofit aims to bring 350,000 Americans online.

What’s the best part of your job?
Bringing together parties with diverse interests to work toward a common goal. In one day, I can go from the White House to an internet company to a community center, and at the end of that day my job is to get all of them working to close the digital divide in ways large and small.

What virtue do you prize the most?
I prize empathy, particularly for those who are on the wrong side of so many of life’s divides and challenges. We could muster the political will and civic energy to solve many of our country’s problems, if even more people saw themselves in their fellow Americans.

What’s your favorite way to spend your personal time?
I love movies. My wife and I see a movie almost every week. From “Rocky” to “Lord of the Rings” to “Gladiator,” I am sucker for epic movies where characters try to accomplish the impossible.

3
Miriam Altman

Using technology to keep kids in school
As a history teacher at a New York City public high school, Miriam Altman could never predict which desks might be empty on a given day. But she could easily see that the students who missed the most class had the toughest time keeping up. Nationwide, two out of every five dropouts say they missed too many school days to continue. With cofounder Alexandra Meis, Altman created Kinvolved, a mobile app that keeps parents in the loop when their child is absent. After sending out 2.1 million texts, participating schools reported a 28 percent decrease in chronic absences. Over the next school year, Altman will work to double Kinvolved’s reach.

What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
I’m proud that we have had the patience and the conviction to keep working to solve absenteeism in an educational system that is admittedly tough to navigate much of the time. Without having technical backgrounds, my co-founder and I, two women, built a revenue-generating tech company, raised money to advance our mission and have many paying customers.

What’s the long-term vision for Kinvolved?
We started in New York City, the largest school district in the world, and we’re growing to new communities across the US. We’re excited to be able to help communities solve these challenges on the ground in their own contexts.

If you could be anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Crosslake, Minn., is my happy place. I’m from Minneapolis, and Crosslake is a lakeside town about three hours north of the Twin Cities. I have many wonderful memories as a kid with family and friends at a cabin. Four years ago, my mother, one of the greatest role models in my life, passed away. Crosslake had been her happy place, too. So, it is a place to remember, celebrate and make new memories. My fiancé and I are now in the midst of planning our wedding there!

4
Rey Faustino

Streamlining access to social services for those in need
In the Bay Area, the gilded center of tech wealth, 11.3 percent of residents live in poverty. These low-income families spend hours researching and traveling to government agencies and nonprofits, where too often they are turned away because of stringent intake requirements. One Degree, a nonprofit tech platform, has connected over 140,000 people in and around San Francisco to affordable housing, workforce training, health clinics and child care since launching in 2012. Next up for Faustino and One Degree: kicking off a national expansion by hopping south to Los Angeles.

What got you interested in addressing this challenge?
I grew up in an immigrant family from humble beginnings, which propelled me to want to work in a sector that helps other families climb the ladder of opportunity. In my work for college-access nonprofit organizations, I saw that low-income students and families were struggling to access the very resources that were meant to help them. I started One Degree because I wish I had this service while I was working at those organizations and when I was growing up.

What has starting a small enterprise taught you about leadership?
Starting this organization has taught me that leadership is not about having all of the answers. But I realized that I had to create a team that was ready to ask the right questions, and this required people who were unafraid to challenge themselves to face the ambiguous and the unknown. I often tell my team that we’re pioneers because no one yet has figured out the answer to the problem of social-service access.

What book have you read recently that you can’t stop thinking about?
Big Little Man,” by Alex Tizon, is a great dive into the intersection of masculinity and Filipino, Asian and American identities. And as a Filipino-American immigrant who has struggled to find societal and cultural role models, it was nice to be able to read an articulate and intelligent work that so resonated with my own upbringing and culture.

5
Jukay Hsu

Building a more diverse and inclusive tech community
After studying at Harvard, then serving as a US Army officer in Iraq, Jukay Hsu returned to his hometown of Queens, New York. There, he saw a “huge disconnect” between the jobs his former Ivy League classmates were nabbing in tech and the stasis in his home borough. To bridge these worlds, Hsu founded Coalition for Queens, which trains adults from underserved populations to be app and web developers through a rigorous 10-month program. Armed with coding skills, program alums have gained lucrative jobs — transitioning from cab drivers and waiters to working for Capital One, Kickstarter and Spotify — and, says Hsu, hopefully “founding the companies of the future.”

What is your proudest achievement?
Enabling talented adults without a college education to become software engineers and entrepreneurs; raising average incomes from $18,000 to $85,000 a year through our program; and creating a pathway from poverty to the middle class in the process.

What book is currently on your nightstand?
I recently read “Underground Airlines,” by Ben Winters. It’s an alternate dystopian present where the Civil War didn’t take place and slavery is legal in four US States. As absurd as that seems, the book feels eerily realistic and close to the present, which makes me question my own beliefs. It’s an incredibly powerful illustration of the impact of historical circumstance.

If you could be anywhere in the world, where would it be?
New York is the best city in the world because of its incredible industry, diversity, energy and capacity for change. All the best things and worst things are here, and it’s the most powerful place to create new things and tackle our society’s greatest problems.

6
Jeffrey Mathews & Alex Weinberg

Helping parents help students
Anyone watching their child agonize over math homework wants to step in and help, but often the new Common Core questions, which emphasize problem-solving over computation, can seem just as daunting to parents. Enter Upraised Learning, founded in New York City in 2013 by Jeffrey Mathews and Alex Weinberg, both former educators. The company’s platforms enable parents to see where their kids are struggling and how they can help. In 2017, Mathews and Weinberg plan to expand the math program to 500 schools as well as launch a reading program.

How did you first become aware of the challenge you’re addressing?
AW: I was teaching at a residential school for at-risk students north of New York City and remember families making the often several-hour trek for parent-teacher meetings. It was amazing to me how much these families wanted to be supportive, and yet how few resources there were to help them engage in their child’s learning.

What has starting a small enterprise taught you about leadership?
JM: When running a social venture, it’s necessary, but not sufficient, to want to do good.  You’ve got to do it well, which means building a sustainable business that actually affects people’s lives.

What’s the one podcast you can’t live without?
AW: Keeping It 1600 [The Ringer’s political show hosted by four former Obama staffers].

7
Maria Vertkin

Creating employment opportunities for bilingual immigrants
An immigrant herself, Maria Vertkin launched Found in Translation in 2011 to tap into the under-appreciated talents of immigrants. The organization has trained and placed 158 low-income, bilingual women into jobs as medical interpreters, significantly improving their income and career prospects.. The hospitals they staff, meanwhile, become more equitable places, where culture and language are no longer barriers to life-saving care. “Our model turns two social problems into each other’s solutions and has the power to transform careers, lives, families, communities and entire cities through language,” says Vertkin.

What motivated you to create Found in Translation?
I was born in Russia, immigrated to Israel at age 6 and to the US at 9. From a young age, I watched my family struggle in a new place. Their university degrees didn’t count, their intelligence was discounted and their skills were wasted. The stereotype that immigrants are not a positive contribution to society became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Years later, as a social worker, I met countless families facing the same challenges, and I wanted to create an opportunity for them that I wish my own family had had.

What’s the last great book you read?
I am embarrassed to admit I only recently read “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” by Anne Fadiman. This journey of a Hmong family through the US healthcare system is eye-opening and a must-read for anyone who cares about healthcare access and linguistic and cultural rights.

Where’s your favorite place in the world to be?
That would be my apartment in Boston! Boring, I know, but I love the way the sunlight falls through my bedroom windows in the late afternoon. Having immigrated twice, the feeling of being at home is not a feeling I take for granted.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.