This OZY Genius Linked Displaced People to Language Students - OZY | A Modern Media Company

This OZY Genius Linked Displaced People to Language Students

This OZY Genius Linked Displaced People to Language Students

By Kevin O'Dowd



Because Elise Shea is changing lives across the globe — one language lesson at a time.

By Kevin O'Dowd

Every year, OZY gives 10 college students the opportunity to pursue their outstanding ideas and envisioned innovations with grants of up to $10,000. The OZY Genius Awards aim to support and celebrate the next Albert Einstein or Oprah Winfrey as they write groundbreaking books, film thought-provoking documentaries, launch tomorrow’s industry-disrupting companies or create the next game-changing social movement. Applications for the 2021 OZY Genius Awards are now open — learn more and apply today.


For Elise Shea, a 2017 OZY Genius Award winner, it has always been about soaking up the moment she’s in — and addressing all that is swept under the rug. 

Soon after starting at Vassar College in 2015 — during what she notes was a period of rising forcible displacement — Shea knew there was a need to “rethink the direction of humanitarian aid.” She turned to the OZY Genius Awards with her idea for creating opportunities for displaced people to earn money by sharing their language skills.

Initially called Speak to Me, Shea’s nonprofit organization has now been renamed Conversations Unbound. The digital language-learning platform connects people who have been forcibly displaced with students who teach Arabic, Spanish, French or German. Tutors earn $15 for 60 minutes of instruction, and the interaction helps heighten awareness of forced displacement through cross-cultural dialogue.

Now 25, Shea has graduated from college and moved to Austria, where she works as an analyst for Ground Truth Solutions, an international nongovernmental organization that helps people affected by crisis influence the design and implementation of humanitarian aid. Conversations Unbound, meanwhile, is still going strong as a volunteer-run nonprofit. The OZY Genius Awards, Shea says, emboldened her to think bigger. “I don’t know whether we would have been able to turn a student organization into a nonprofit had it not been for the award.”

She also gained a mentor through the award in Kelly Ann Collins, founder and CEO of Vult Lab, who is now an integral part of the organization’s board.

Next up? Shea plans to expand Conversations Unbound into the curriculum of new universities — and, in turn, help more displaced people earn a livelihood.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly used the term “refugees,” when not all of Conversations Unbound clients are labeled refugees. In addition, the story provided an incorrect amount for how much tutors earn and wrongly implied that Conversations Unbound is involved with distributing humanitarian aid.

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