The Prof Who Gifts the Future

The Prof Who Gifts the Future

By Renee Morad


Because often a hand, on top of a handout, is all that’s needed.

By Renee Morad

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Alan Harlam, Director of Social Innovation at Brown University’s Swearer Center
Providence, Rhode Island

Alan Harlam was nominated for the OZY Educator Award by Trang Duong, who wrote, “Alan always has my back — to give me encouragement when I hit a roadblock and to keep me grounded when there is a success.”

Alan Harlam

Holding it down at Brown

Source Courtesy of Alan Harlam

The vision of a better future. It’s what gets me up every morning. One minute, I’m teaching some 20 students in a course about leading social ventures, and another, I’m counseling a young man before his meeting with the commissioner of the NBA to pitch his idea to use basketball as a culturally relevant hook to improve middle-school students’ math skills.

But there’s no better time to be an entrepreneur than now. And by now, I mean as a young student or recent college grad. These young adults don’t have big responsibilities — like a family or a mortgage — yet. They only have the emotional risk of their idea not working out. They’ve got very little to lose.

I often tell my students, don’t get caught up in analysis paralysis; just start doing. I ask them: What obstacles are standing in the way of your innovation, and how can we remove them? Sometimes, students just need to hear that their idea is worth pursuing. 

Who would believe that an 18-year-old could get in front of a room full of executives and convince them that his or her idea is worth betting on? I do, time and time again.

In my course on leading social ventures, students dive into the root cause of a problem and create an innovative solution. Then, they’ll develop a business model to implement that solution and a plan to get started. We’ve tackled everything from the lack of affordable prosthetics in Vietnam — in which my student Trang Duong’s affordable prosthetics earned her recognition as an OZY Genius Award winner — to the massive amounts of ugly fruit that end up in landfills each year. Imperfect Produce, launched by Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark, now sells produce like crooked carrots and undersized apples commercially at a lower price to help reduce food waste.


One of the most rewarding parts of my job is the relationships I develop with my students. I mentor them over the course of two to three years and watch their ideas start as tiny seeds and flourish into major innovations. Khalil Fuller, the student who met with the commissioner of the NBA, went on to partner with the NBA and Hasbro. NBA Math Hoops is helping 25,000 students a year fall in love with math in schools across the country.

I believe that, throughout life, what we know holds us back from realizing major accomplishments. But for many of my students, their naiveté is a source of strength. They’re willing to try things without regard to whether or not they’ll fail. They’re determined to find a solution and are often unaware of the reasons that their idea shouldn’t work. And it’s the reason we see so many innovations coming out of young people.

At Brown, we believe that student entrepreneurs need to get their ideas out of their heads and into the world, so we’ve created the Social Innovation Initiative, which supports 15 students with a stipend to work on their ventures full-time over a summer.  We also award a fellowship for up to four graduating seniors to work on their innovation throughout the next year without having to earn a salary. But we realize it’s important that they learn to raise funding too, so we require that they match the amount of money they’re awarded from the university through their own crowdfunding.

Who would believe that an 18-year-old could get in front of a room full of executives and convince them that his or her idea is worth betting on? I do, time and time again. I feel fortunate to help dozens of students each year bring their entrepreneurial dreams to life. It’s a source of joy and inspiration, and I find comfort in knowing that our future is brighter in their hands.