‘Ecopreneurs’ Join Social Entrepreneurs in Expanded Fellowship Program

Stanford Impact Founder prizes honor efforts to address environmental and social issues.

June 06, 2023

| by Stanford GSB Staff
A grid of portraits of the the eight Stanford Impact Founder prize winners.

From top left to right: Sasankh Munukutla, Shiro Keziah Wachira, Drew Barvir, Thilo Braun, Kelly Redmond, Justin Ziegler, Vivek Ramakrishnan, Nia Rose Froome | Images by courtesy

Stanford has awarded more than $1 million in fellowship and prize money to graduating advanced degree students who want to start high-impact ventures addressing the world’s most challenging environmental and social problems.

This year, eight students — more than double the number from previous years — won Stanford Impact Founder Fellowships to start high-impact ventures that address a pressing social or environmental need. The fellowships provide $110,000 in funding, year-long personalized coaching, and an invitation to access Stanford Venture Studio resources during the fellowship year.

“Since 2009, Stanford has provided this critical support to graduating students who are passionate about building a new venture to make a difference in the world, and may not yet be ready to raise traditional sources of capital,” says Neil Malhotra, the Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and faculty director of the Center for Social Innovation. “In this program’s earliest years, we awarded one or two fellowships a year. Demand has grown. The sheer number of well-prepared, committed students who are willing to make the hard choice to focus on today’s most pressing challenges inspires me every year.”

The fellowships provide $110,000 in funding, and year-long personalized coaching.

“There’s a huge amplification factor in funding the best and brightest out of Stanford who have the passion to tackle entrenched problems,” says Amanda Greco, associate director of the Social Entrepreneurship Program at Stanford GSB. “These students are aiming to create massive social or environmental value. Supporters of this program have come to the table to say, ‘This is a way we can really create change in our world.’”

The number of SIF fellowships and prizes awarded doubled through a collaboration between Stanford GSB’s Center for Social Innovation and Stanford Ecopreneurship Programs, established through the Benioff Ecopreneur Fund. This new partnership between Stanford GSB and Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability aims to support entrepreneurs focusing on environmental sustainability. While social and environmental issues are interlinked, the two tracks cater to teams whose primary metric of impact is focused on human wellbeing (e.g. health, income inequality, education) or one focused on environmental sustainability (e.g. greenhouse gas abatement or biodiversity preservation).

This year’s applicant pool — the largest ever — was diverse, both in the founders’ demographics, backgrounds, domain expertise, and in the issues they wanted to address — which include mental health, ed tech, battery storage, and sustainable agriculture.

Broad Institutional Support

Stanford takes a stance in the support it provides to students who are interested in entrepreneurship, with special programs for aspiring entrepreneurs tackling thorny social and environmental issues. Last summer, more than 40 graduate students took part in immersion programs such as the Impact Design Immersion Fellowship and the Botha Chan Innovation Internship, which provide funding to students over summer to identify needs and prototype with target users and beneficiaries.

“Before they even apply to the SIF fellowship, which is a high-profile, large award that enables students to work full-time on their impact venture after graduation, there’s a whole continuum of programming, including financial resources and access to experts and advisors, that Stanford makes available to a wide range of students,” Greco says.

Investing in Leadership Potential

The awards are not just a stamp of approval for each student’s business plan. Judges look both at the idea for the venture and at the student’s leadership skills.

“What makes the SIF fellowship stick out is our focus on celebrating and supporting the candidates’ leadership capacity,” says Renee Coman, associate director of Co-curricular Ecopreneurship Programs. “We recognize the students’ passion and ability to lead others is what will allow them to endure the long journey, pivot when they need to, and succeed in making an impact. This is about supporting them and their leadership in an area where they are committed to making a big contribution.”

Stanford Impact Founder Fellowship: Social Entrepreneurship Winners

  • Drew Barvir, MBA ’23, is a cofounder of Sonar Mental Health, a platform that proactively identifies youth mental health challenges and catalyzes positive interventions by analyzing online activity and activating the adolescent’s support network.

  • Nia Froome, MBA ’23, is starting Comfort Food, which tackles the crises of increasing mortality and chronic illness within low-income communities of color by increasing access to healthy, delicious meals at convenient points of sale within those communities.

  • Vivek Ramakrishnan, MBA ’23, is a cofounder of Project Read, which is addressing the fact that 83% of low-income students cannot read proficiently by creating an AI-powered reading coach that generates content based on a child’s interests.

  • Justin Ziegler, MBA ’23, is co-founding Juice, a new payment network increasing African access to the global economy through faster, safer, and cheaper payments.

Stanford Impact Founder Fellowship: Ecopreneurship Winners

  • Thilo Braun, MBA ’23, MS ’23 (Environment and Resources), is co-founding And Battery Aero, which will address the environmental costs of the transportation industry by developing novel battery systems to decarbonize heavy transportation, starting with aviation.

  • Sasankh Munukutla, BS ’22, MS ’23 (Computer Science), is the founder of Terradot, which is building a high-integrity scalable soil carbon sequestration measurement, reporting, and verification platform to rapidly scale soil carbon improvement to combat climate change.

  • Kelly Redmond, MS ’23 (Engineering), is starting Oleo Sustainable Palm Oil Solutions, which is developing a sustainable, deforestation-free, lab-grown alternative to palm oil using a process that can be implemented directly with smallholders in producing nations.

  • Shiro Wachira, MA ’23 (International Policy), is the founder of Growing Acres, which aims to build the human capital to power modern, climate-adaptive farms in sub-Saharan Africa, through a technical and behavioral skills training program delivered on working farms.

Winners of the $20,000 SIF-Social Prize

Winners of the $20,000 SIF-Eco Prize

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