What's a mother of invention? Answer, a woman who sees a social problem and decides to use her own ingenuity and dynamism to try and fix it—and then was lucky enough to win the attention of Toyota. For the past three years, the inspiring stories of these resourceful women have punctuated the Women in the World Summit, the three-day conference at Lincoln Center which unites global women leaders, artists, activists, organizers, and innovators around how to get a better life for women and girls. New honorees will be announced this year beginning January 16 in Chicago and you can see them on live stream from the Women in the World summit on April 3rd to 5th. Meanwhile, We checked in on the first six Mothers of Invention honorees to ask them what difference the recognition, and the Toyota cash prize has meant to them since.
Asenath Andrews, Founding Principal of the Catherine Ferguson Academy
Her Genius Idea: A Detroit-area charter school for pregnant and parenting teens that’s committed to helping its 179 students beat the odds: Only 40 percent of teen moms finish high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and America’s Promise Alliance, but close to 100 percent of Andrews’s students do—most going on to two- or four-year colleges.
Women in the World Highlight: While Andrews admits to being a bit star-struck upon meeting Tracey Ullman (“If I ever see her again, I’ll apologize for being such a little girl!”), she was most captivated by “the brainpower and energy of all these women, from all these different places, in one room,” she says. “It should have elevated the building. Literally—we should have just floated up.”
The Latest News: Andrews set aside some of her Mothers of Invention grant to teach her students about entrepreneurship: “I started a think tank,” she says. “For six weeks during the summer of 2012, I paid 10 girls to come in every day for four hours to read, write, and think about issues that had to do with the school.” She took the idea a step further this past summer by identifying a few key repair projects around the school and encouraging students to form businesses to take on the work. “It has given them a sense that their ideas have value,” she says, “and a sense of what it takes to run your own company.”
The Impact of the Mothers of Invention Honor: “The recognition lets our students know that where they go is an important place, and that there are people outside our staff that think it’s important,” says Andrews. “For me, personally, it’s been extraordinary,” she says, referring to the recognition and subsequent invitations to speak at PopTech and TED, among other conferences. “I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and didn’t think anyone gave a darn at all.”
Talia Leman, Founder of RandomKid.org
Her Genius Idea: An online hub that connects well-intentioned teens worldwide, giving them the resources to make a major social impact. Leman, now 19, started the organization at age 10, after a Halloween fundraiser she started to help residents of Hurricane Katrina–devastated New Orleans inspired schoolchildren across the country to collect an incredible $10 million for the cause.
Women in the World Highlight: “It not only was an incredible, mind-blowing event, but I made connections that I’ve been able to keep,” says Leman. “I’m still in touch with Hummingbird Foundation founder Jill Iscol, who interviewed me on the stage, and with Diane von Furstenberg. And before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her speech, there were a solid 10 minutes where just the two of us were backstage in the green room. It was incredible to be there and hear her talk on a very personal level.”
The Latest News: Leman, saluted for her vision by Nicholas Kristof in a 2008 column, “Talia for President,” is now beginning the second quarter of her freshman year at Stanford University. While she stepped down from her CEO position so that she can concentrate on her studies, she remains on the board of RandomKid, which now works annually with as many as 100,000 youth in 20 countries, bringing aid to four continents. This year the organization is working on an app that will house all of the fundraising, organizing, and branding tools now available to kids online.
The Impact of the Mothers of Invention honor: “Before Women in the World, everything we did was from a place of financial worry,” says Leman. “We placed the funds Toyota gave us into a community seed fund pool for youth. Now, when a youth comes to us and needs funding to launch an idea to better the world, we can back them. [They] then return 10 percent of what they raise to grow our pool, making it possible for us to launch even more youth efforts. So what Toyota did is turn a little engine that could into a high-speed rail.”
Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman, Founders of sOccket
Their Genius Idea: A soccer ball that generates clean, accessible electrical energy—the first of a series of products for their company, Uncharted Play, which uses a combination of technology and good old fashioned play to help the 1.3 billion people worldwide who live without electricity. Matthews and Silverman conceived of the sOccket as Harvard University undergrads: Every kick of the ball charges LEDs or small batteries; 30 minutes of play yields hours of light.
Women in the World Highlight: “It was humbling and awesome to meet such accomplished women and have them provide validity to what I was doing,” says Matthews. “At other conferences, you don’t get so many amazing women together, just happy to honor and hope for the best for one another.”
The Latest News: While Silverman has moved on, Matthews, who graduates from Harvard Business School later this year, now presides over a team of 20 full-time staff— half at their new office in downtown Manhattan, and half at their new manufacturing facility about 65 miles north of the city. This past summer, the White House invited Matthews to present a sOccket to President Obama, who was traveling in Tanzania; she watched as he kicked it around with the country’s president, Jakaya Kikiwete. In December, Uncharted Play unveiled the beta version of the Pulse, a jump rope that generates five times the electricity of the sOccket.
The Impact of the Mothers of Invention Honor: Matthews and Sullivan received the honor while Uncharted Play was in its earliest days, and the sOccket was undergoing a redesign. “It meant so much to us to be recognized at a time when not everyone believed in us,” says Matthews. “The money kept us going, even when we weren’t sure that we could.”
Kavita M. Shukla, Founder of FreshPaper
Her Genius Idea: A paper infused with organic spices and ingredients that, when placed near fresh produce, inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. Shukla got the idea as a teenager when, while visiting India, she accidentally drank tap water, and her grandmother gave her the spice mixture—an old family remedy—in order to ward off illness.
Women in the World Highlight: “Looking out at the audience and seeing so many leaders and thinkers, so engaged, was overwhelming and exciting,” says Shukla. “We shared our idea for just a few minutes, but when I checked my email 10 minutes later, my iPhone couldn’t even load all of the messages.”
The Latest News: This past August, FreshPaper won the top honor at Copenhagen’s 2013 INDEX: Design to Improve Life awards, also known as the biggest design prize in the world. Now the product is sold at all Wegman’s stores as well as in Whole Foods Markets and other retailers in 35 countries. Their newest concept, FreshCards—greeting cards made with FreshPaper and printed with edible ink—sold out 10 days after their launch. “We’re planning to go to India in the next few months, to make sure the product is accessible to farmers there,” says Shukla. “Thinking of how we started, it’s a full-circle moment.”
The Impact of the Mothers of Invention Honor: “We talk about everything in terms of ‘before Women in the World… and after,’” says Shukla. “Before, we were making FreshPaper in my home kitchen and standing by the side of the road at farmer’s markets to distribute it. Now we’re talking to the largest retailers in the world. I credit our exposure at Women in the World with the traction we’ve gained since.”
Sejal Hathi and Tara Roberts, Founders of Girltank
Their Genius Idea: A social network to connect female entrepreneurs, many of whom work in isolation, with a goal of helping them grow and scale their businesses in order to maximize social good. The collaboration began in 2008 when Hathi, who as a teen founded a nonprofit to help girls in the developing world, connected with Roberts, who was working as an editor at CosmoGirl! Magazine.
Women in the World Highlight: “It was amazing to be in a space with so many people so committed and passionate about supporting and uplifting women and girls,” says Roberts. “We connected with some really fantastic people—in the corporate, philanthropic, and media worlds—who offered to serve as advisors to us on some level. It was inspiring to know we’re not alone—that the work we’re doing is not in a vacuum.”
The Latest News: After a Girltank survey of 1,500 female social entrepreneurs revealed that their two biggest needs were a sense of community and access to capital, the organization built a crowdfunding platform and reached out to eight organizations—in six countries—in need of support. “We’ve also realized that we’re hearing a lot of information from the capacity-building partners and mentors that everyone in the network is not hearing,” says Roberts. “Thanks to the money from Toyota, we’re now in the process of developing and planning a digital publication to share tips, leads, and best practices.”
The Impact of the Mothers of Invention Honor: This past July, Girltank received a donation from a prominent Women in the World supporter; the next day, they heard from an entrepreneur in their network that was, as Roberts remembers, “at her wits’ end”: The yarn her fashion company had ordered for their show at New York’s Fashion Week was held up at a production facility because they didn’t have the funds to ship it. “The amount she needed was just the amount we received in the loan,” says Roberts, who forwarded on the funds. That money was immediately repaid post–Fashion Week, and, says Roberts, “has now turned into an emergency fund that will help more and more Girltankers out of tight spots.”
Caitria and Morgan O’Neill, Founders of Recovers.org
Their Genius Idea: Software that enables natural disaster–ravaged communities to organize volunteers, connect large-scale aid agencies with local need, and maximize resources in order to rebuild. These two sisters began working on the project after a major tornado tore through their small Massachusetts hometown, damaging their home and close to 300 others.
Women in the World Highlight: Having their parents in the audience: “It took us so long to get back to normal after the tornado,” says Morgan. “They were tremendously proud to see such a devastating event grow into a positive thing that can impact so many people.”
The Latest News: The sisters and their team were focusing on adding complexity and robustness to their software when the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado hit this past May. They dropped everything to travel there, donating their software and collaborating with FEMA and the Red Cross, among other organizations. “The people who needed help were exhausted, and it was overwhelming how much other people—from as far away as Maryland and Indiana—wanted to give,” says Morgan. “It was amazing to go to a community and say, “We know what you’re dealing with, and we’re here to help.” They’re now working on preparedness measures, so that people are ready when the tornado—or the flood, wildfire, or other disaster—strikes.
The Impact of the Mothers of Invention Honor: “Being onstage was magical, surreal… We felt like rock stars,” says Morgan. “That’s not typical when you’re working in the field or at a desk. It was a huge boost of confidence.”