It can be hard enough to start a business — but what if you also want that business to create positive change in the world? Samsung NEXT and NationSwell teamed up for the Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge, to reward innovators focused on bridging the opportunity gap across education, workforce development, and economic empowerment.
The five finalists were comprised of a diverse group of entrepreneurs from all parts of the country, each building businesses geared toward achieving positive social impact. All five presented their innovations at an awards ceremony in New York City, where one company, Literator, was announced the winner.
Here’s a look at the issues these five young innovators chose to tackle, and how they hope to make a difference.
The winner, Michelle Ching, set out to solve a major problem in education: literacy. As a second-grade teacher, she saw that her students were struggling with learning to read — but it was hard to track their progress and identify where they were getting stuck. Her app, Literator, helps teachers track their students’ reading proficiency in real time across the school year, and lets them know what kind of help each student needs. “Literacy is one of the things that is the biggest blocker for student success, so for us, it was a no-brainer that literacy would be the big systems-change work that we wanted to tackle first,” says Ching. “But it’s turned into a bigger vision beyond that.”
Brian Hill, CEO and founder of Edovo, wants to create a new model of education in correctional facilities while also helping incarcerated people stay in touch with their loved ones. By providing incarcerated people with secure tablets, Edovo helps them gain access to education and also communicate with loved ones on the outside. These tools can provide the skills and support that allow people to integrate back into the community when they’re released, and that in turn can reduce recidivism, says Hill. “If we’re not helping people, if we’re just opening the door and saying ‘Go home,’ we run the risk of very rapidly destroying any gains we make in [criminal justice reform],” Hill says. “It’s about helping people learn and develop and make choices.”
Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou as a way to modernize the informal credit clubs adopted by many cultures around the world. In Ghana, a sou-sou is a practice in which a group pools their money, allowing one member to use the full amount each month. Gilliam said she became aware of this and similar practices while working as a diplomat in the foreign service across Africa and Asia. Gilliam built an app that allows people to easily track and organize their pooled funds, while also linking up with banks to earn credit on the money. “There are so many communities abroad, even immigrant communities in the U.S., that are using these informal lending circles to save money amongst themselves, rotate money and fund their goals,” says Gilliam. “So I thought to myself, this is a system that’s working, what if we modernized it with tech?”
Preston Silverman said he realized that many high school students “check out” of the college track early because they assume they will not be able to afford to go — even if they might be eligible for scholarships after graduating from high school. His startup, RaiseMe, helps high school students access financial aid before they apply to college. “We focus on the financial aid part of the equation because we see that’s the biggest barrier for students and families, but ultimately we want to help all students discover and realize their college ambitions,” says Silverman. With RaiseMe, students can “follow” colleges they’re interested in and earn “micro-scholarships” from those colleges for a variety of achievements throughout high school, such as getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities and playing sports. If they end up matriculating, they can collect the scholarship.
Like Michelle Ching, Heejae Lim wants to use technology to improve education — but while Literator is a tool for teachers, Lim’s company TalkingPoints is intended to help immigrant parents better support their children in school. As a Korean immigrant, Lim noticed that students whose parents spoke English communicated easily with teachers and became involved in the education process, while those whose parents didn’t speak English struggled to be involved. Her app allows teachers to message parents directly and automatically translates messages in English into over 20 languages. When parents reply in their home language, their response is translated into English for the teacher. “Most of the resources right now are going to school environments and teachers, which is also really important,” Lim says. “But we can also unlock the power of parents and families to be able to improve student performance.”