Why you should care
Because these young people aren’t afraid to have big, bold ideas.
During an awards ceremony at WNET Studios in New York City in late March, Kristin Lemkau, chief marketing officer at JPMorgan Chase and one of the judges of the 2017 OZY Genius Awards competition, quoted the famous words of Muhammad Ali: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”
She, along with OZY’s co-founder Carlos Watson, was addressing the latest class of OZY Genius Award winners, a group of students from colleges across the country chosen to bring their own big ideas to life. Even at a young age, this year’s crop of 10 “geniuses” has put the legendary boxer and activist’s words into action. Among them is California-born, Mexico-raised University of California at Berkeley student Dante Alvarado Leon, who crossed the U.S. border every morning to go to elementary school, sometimes waiting in line for up to three hours. Today, he’s the creator of an online mentoring network that helps students metaphorically cross socioeconomic borders to connect with impactful mentors. There’s Rwandan Claudine Humure, a cancer survivor who lost a leg to the disease. Her experience inspired her to design a 3-D-printed, adjustable prosthetic socket to help spread the gift of mobility to others. And Spanish immigrant Javier Valverde, who was taken aback by the economic inequality in the U.S., designed an online wealth-management platform to help the middle class save more.
That’s just a small sampling of the students who recently received up to $10,000 to bring their big ideas to life. Some 1,000 applications poured in, and a well-known panel of judges — including Katie Couric, Yahoo global news anchor; Laurene Powell Jobs, CEO of Emerson Collective; James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute; Jarl Mohn, CEO of NPR; and David Drummond, the chief legal officer of Google — sifted through the slew of candidates to select 10 rising stars. Read on for more about the winners of the second OZY Genius Awards competition, and stay tuned as we follow them on their journeys.
Amanda Gorman: Generation Empathy
During a museum visit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Los Angeles native Amanda Gorman, a 19-year-old Harvard freshman, found herself reflecting on empathy. The sociology and government major thought, “What if I could give this experience digitally to students around the nation and potentially around the world?”
The idea was the seed for Generation Empathy, a digital virtual reality experience to explore the diverse lives of young changemakers, immersing viewers in different cultures and environments. With a phone and a simple virtual reality headset, students can walk in the shoes of a young poet using her words to discuss homophobia, or a filmmaker preserving her Native American heritage through music and video. She’s inspired by her twin sister, Gabrielle, a filmmaker whose work is about the complexities of battling racism. The platform, she hopes, could help inspire “the next generation of teen activists,” Gorman says — like “a virtual reality Museum of Tolerance, an exhibit for empathy and action made by students for students.”
The rising star’s career goals: “In 2036, you’ll see me on the presidential ballot, but that’s a long time away from now,” she says. In the short term, she plans to pursue a career in writing, storytelling and poetry and become involved in nonprofit and governmental work in education.
Claudine Humure: 3-D-Printed, Adjustable Prosthetic Socket
The 24-year-old senior at Wheaton College, originally from Rwanda, lost both her parents in her country’s genocide. She was raised in an orphanage and battled cancer, which resulted in the amputation of her leg. The prosthetic she received was more than just a new limb for her — it’s become a daily reminder of what many people around the world are forced to go without.
Humure, who is majoring in biology, believes it’s “high time for mobility to be recognized as a human right” and designed a 3-D-printed, adjustable prosthetic socket for transfemoral amputees in developing countries. Her long-term aim: to start a prosthetic clinic in Rwanda that will supply her invention to amputees who are not able to afford the costly (starting at $20,000 in the U.S., and around $1,800 in developing countries) prostheses on the market today.
Dante Alvarado Leon: MentorRoom
Born in San Diego and raised in Tijuana, Mexico, Leon spent every morning from kindergarten through fourth grade queuing up to cross the border by car with his mom and two sisters. For three hours each morning, they waited so he could attend his private school in the U.S. “If we hadn’t crossed the border, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says.
Now 22, the Berkeley senior has seen the importance not only of doggedness and patience but also of mentorship in jump-starting one’s career. With students like himself in mind — those who don’t naturally plug into well-connected networks — he created MentorRoom, building a platform to introduce first-generation college students to professionals to serve as guides and mentors. There’s “a big gap in learning the ropes about what you want to do and what you want to study,” he says. Over the years, he says, he noticed “the gap was widening” and wanted to address it.
As part of a pilot program, Leon connected more than 50 Google employees and 50 Berkeley students (of which 80% were first-generation college students) for three months and gathered data on virtual mentorship. The process helped shape the online platform. If Leon could personally choose any mentor in the world, he’d pick Mark Zuckerberg, he says. Luckily, he already met the Zuck while interning at Facebook.
Aidan McCarty: ePluribus
Stanford sophomore Aidan McCarty, 20, and his older brother Liam, a junior who’s also at Stanford, were sitting together in a hotel room at Half Moon Bay in California last summer, discussing their frustrations with politics. “We talked to other people, and they felt the same way,” McCarty says.
The pre-med student soon went on to launch ePluribus, a platform that lets people annotate government and political documents, like legislation in progress, WikiLeaks-type information or Twitter feeds of representatives. Users can vote on each other’s comments. The remarks are tracked and analyzed to provide data that could be helpful to representatives.
“Constituents don’t really have a good way of contacting their representatives,” McCarty says. “They might write an email, write a letter or give a phone call. But none of those things are very impactful, and they’re very difficult to analyze from a representative’s point of view.” McCarty strongly believes that representatives “really do care about what the people are saying because it’s the heart of democracy.” With ePluribus, he hopes to bridge the disconnect between constituents and their representatives.
Maria Mckiever: Grapevyne
After high school, instead of going to college, Maria Mckiever spent four years as a medic in the Army, completing a tour of duty in Iraq and another in Kuwait. Her decision to join the Army was influenced by family tradition: Her mom, cousin, uncle, great-uncle and grandfather all served in the military. Mckiever says being involved in the Army gave her improved focus and patience, a deeper sense of gratitude and a willingness to take risks. Today, the junior is an industrial engineering major (on the GI Bill) at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But Mckiever, who was raised by her grandmother in New York, builds more than just complex processes and systems during her studies. She’s also a green belt in karate and the fierce creator of an app called Grapevyne, which provides digital exposure for men and women who style Black hair from their homes. It gives access to an affordable stylist for customers on a budget, too. Users seeking a stylist log on to Grapevyne to find their nearest provider, based on their location. Mckiever says her experience in the military opened her eyes to the value of services that target the transient community, from out-of-state college students, newly relocated Black professionals and military personnel. “The peer-to-peer economy is in full swing,” Mckiever says. “This is one market that has been overlooked: the at-home stylist.”
Steve Rathje: Proscenium Live
Steve Rathje knew theater was going to be important to him in third grade, when he saw a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in his hometown of Portland, Oregon.
Today, Portland’s vibrant theater scene continues to remain an important part of the 21-year-old Stanford junior’s life. His project: to produce a free festival of new plays called Proscenium Live, to develop opportunities for emerging playwrights while making theater more accessible to diverse audiences.
Now in its third year, Proscenium Live, in the past, has produced plays by veteran playwrights like Pulitzer Prize finalist Amy Freed, commissioned local playwrights to write new works and invested in the works of playwrights just starting out. Plays produced in Proscenium Live are published in Proscenium Journal, a free online literary journal Rathje founded for publishing new plays. Proscenium Live has already drawn in more than 1,000 audience members.
Theater, Rathje says, “changed him as a person.” And through his work as a producer, theater teacher and artist, he has also witnessed how it has “completely transformed” the lives of others. At a time when funding for the National Endowment for the Arts is threatened and ticket prices soar beyond what’s affordable for many, he hopes his free festival will remind people that art is for everyone.
Gevick Safarians: NeuroConnect
Born in Iran and raised in Burbank, California, UCLA freshman Gevick Safarians, 18, has big plans for the future. He wants to graduate in three years with a neuroscience major, go straight to medical school, finish his novel about the human condition in a dystopian society — all while reading a book a week and launching an interactive virtual reality platform.
That platform’s called NeuroConnect. It provides a 3-D view of the brain and nervous system for physicians to better involve their patients. Because the brain is so complex for laypeople to understand, Safarians, as a future doctor, hopes to make sure patients can fully comprehend their illness or injury. “When physicians are explaining the diagnosis to the patient, they can physically interact with and show the patient what exactly has happened to them,” Safarians says.
Elise Shea: Speak to Me
Over breakfast, 21-year-old Elise Shea, a sophomore majoring in international studies at Vassar College, often flips through the pages of the New York Times. The articles she has read about the recent refugee crisis and the images of refugees falling out of wooden boats struck a chord. Her solution: Speak to Me, a digital language-learning platform that lets refugee tutors teach foreign language skills to college students and receive a payout of about $5 per 30 minutes for each session. She thought it could be an effective way to “rethink the direction of humanitarian aid” while helping with the creation of “valuable transnational relationships.”
Raised in Indianapolis, Shea took a gap year between high school and college to perform in a professional ballet company, the Arts Ballet Theatre of Florida — fulfilling her dream to dance professionally before committing to her academic studies. While working in a multilingual setting, she began to study Spanish, and continued her 13 years of French language studies. When Shea’s not learning a language, reading or dancing, she enjoys traveling. Some of her most memorable experiences include medical-mission trips to Haiti and a visit to a refugee camp in Greece.
Javier Valverde: Capital Pro
Madrid-raised Javier Valverde spent his childhood looking up to his father, Javier Senior. While his dad traveled often throughout the week, young Javier eagerly awaited weekends, when they could take seven-mile-long runs together. As they went, father and son discussed Javier Senior’s career working in equity sales for a European bank. Even as a 12-year-old, Valverde was fascinated by it.
Now 21, Valverde is a senior at the University of Notre Dame — which he discovered on the internet when searching for top universities to study business. The finance major, with a minor in computer science, has combined his two interests to create an online wealth management platform called Capital Pro, which provides personalized investment recommendations for a fraction (of up to one-tenth) of the standard fee, he says. His target: middle-income Americans. “I want to help the middle class increase their wealth by giving them access to the highest-return asset class — stocks,” he explains.
Trang Duong and Victor Wang: Penta, A Joint Initiative
When Trang Duong, a junior at Brown, and Victor Wang, a junior at Yale, traveled to Vietnam together, they were surprised to see the enormous numbers of people with limb disabilities and injuries from land mines and motorcycle accidents in the country. They then found out that many of these people do not have access to prosthetic care due to the high cost of such medical devices. So Duong and Wang decided to found Penta with the mission to bring high-quality, low-cost prosthetics to the country.
The math major and classics major have begun to collect used prosthetics in the U.S. and recustomize the equipment for patients in Vietnam. They’ve partnered with local hospitals and clinics to customize their equipment to help amputees, especially younger patients, so they can return to school. They have also developed longer-term relationships with some of those they’ve helped, many of whom were unable to attend school because of their disabilities and lack of access to prosthetic care. “We want to do more than fit people with prosthetics, and we hope to impact people’s quality of life through our work,” Duong says.
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