Innovation inspiration: The Hatchery’s micro-grant success stories

Emory Report | Aug. 10, 2021

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Students such as (clockwise from center) Kaitlin Zhang, Nithya Narayanaswamy, C.J. O’Brien, Yifei Gao and Emily Kim have had opportunities to pursue their passion projects as Inspiration Micro-Grant recipients.

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Gana Ahn
Director of Enterprise Communications
mailto:gana.ahn@emory.edu

While summertime might mean vacations or working a traditional seasonal job such as lifeguarding or being a nanny (all noble pursuits) for some young adults, a select group of Emory University scholars are spending their summer tackling complex societal issues including homelessness, human trafficking and healthcare inequality.

With $400 in seed money each, the benefit of one-on-one coaching and a state-of-the-art ideation hub at their disposal, 13 Emory students are pursuing their passion projects as the latest group of Inspiration Micro-Grant recipients sponsored by The Hatchery Center for Innovation at Emory University.

“Although it is barely a year old, the Inspiration Micro-Grant is a strategic and popular program from The Hatchery that has already fueled a variety of great student success stories,” said Shannon Clute, PhD, Director of The Hatchery.

These successes include supporting the students who built an enterprise-wide coalition that resulted in Emory’s Break Free From Plastic Pledge signed June 15 by university president Gregory L. Fenves. It started as Micro-Grant recipients Nithya Narayanaswamy and C.J. O’ Brien’s passion project.

“We are dedicated to addressing the single use plastic problem at Emory, through education, outreach, policy change, and most importantly, passing a ‘Break Free from Plastic Pledge’ that seeks to phase out unnecessary single use plastic problems at Oxford and Emory campuses by 2025,” they said in an Instagram post explaining the project. “Single use plastic has a hand not only in exacerbating environmental crises like climate change, pollution and ecological damage, but is also a huge propellant of social inequity by posing adverse health and ecological risks to marginalized and disproportionately represented communities. Our goal is to tackle this multifold issue at its source, by reducing the amount of unnecessary single use plastic we consume at Emory, and (by) building a culture of reuse and sustainability.”

Another success story from the Micro-Grant program is the Art for Heart non-profit organization founded by grantee Yifei Gao. It combines artistic expression with activism and is dedicated to raising awareness – and funds – for a variety of political and social issues, including erasing inequality in access to the arts. To supplement Micro-Grant funding and coaching, in fall of 2020 the organization also applied for and received a grant for over $1,600 from the General Sustainability & Social Justice Incentives Fund program of the Office of Sustainability Initiatives (OSI) to provide 85 art kits for underprivileged high schoolers and to hire local artists to teach art workshops.

Gao, an economics and linguistics/psychology double major, hopes to build a community of what she calls “artivists.”

Activism and creativity are also at the heart of AltKey’s sustainable virtual fashion show, “Concrete Jungle,” hosted via Zoom on April 10, another Micro-Grant inspiration and success. The virtual programming also featured a slate of guest speakers and panelists from the sustainable fashion industry.  Micro-Grant program funding was supplemented by a $1,500 grant received through the OSI Incentives Fund program as well, to provide a small thrifting stipend to participants, sponsor some of the guest speakers, and provide seed money to the winning student designers.

What is sustainable fashion? It is shoes, accessories and clothing that are manufactured in the most-sustainable manner possible, in socio-economic and environmental aspects.

It also includes second-hand, or so-called “gently-used” clothing, and AltKey, Emory’s sustainable fashion club, hosted a “Go Thrift!” campaign, encouraging students to shop at thrift stores and submit their ensembles to be featured in the fashion show.

Clute is inspired by the diversity of projects the grant program has born.

“Working with Emory student innovators is an endless source of inspiration,” he said. “They pursue such different areas of study in the nine undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, but they seem to share a passion for solving big problems in a way that drives positive social impact.  In a relatively short time frame, we’ve supported student innovators exploring equitability in business modeling, race and media, environmentalism, micro transportation, women’s health, the intersection of feminism and spirituality, and so much more.  The projects are as diverse and impactful as Emory itself.”

What are this summer’s up-and-coming innovators working on?

Here is a sampling:

  • Micro-Grant recipient Rachel Harmon, who is pursuing a PhD in political science, is working with nonprofit Free For Life International to establish a scholarship fund specifically for LGBTQ+ survivors of human traffic. Designed to address the specific experiences and needs of LGBTQ+ human trafficking victims, this fund aims to provide financial assistance as well as mentorship and advising opportunities.
  • Akash Shanmugam, who is studying neuroscience and behavioral biology, quantitative science, founded Vejovis Analytics, a non-profit that is “empowering community health centers in Georgia by transforming patient care with a data-driven approach,” according to its website. The goal is to use data science to promote clinical health equity in underserved Georgia communities.
  • Kierra Grayson, who is studying global health at Rollins School of Public Health, is building a recording studio/healing space for Black creatives and musicians, addressing a need for accessible and affordable mental health services and lack of communal creative spaces in the Black community.

“This cohort of Inspiration Micro-Grant recipients is impressive for their creativity and willingness to tackle really complex problems, such as mental health and culturally-relevant education,” said Ben Garrett, Innovation Programming and Operations Manager at The Hatchery. “The beauty of this program is that we don’t determine what sorts of problems need to be solved: we ask the students how they want to make the world a better place, and they provide them with a little funding and coaching to get them started on their innovator’s journey towards a solution.”