A group of 16-year olds coming up with innovative social solutions for Philadelphia? Fat chance.
A cluster of teens formulating a cogent business pitch for a panel of experienced investors in less than a day? Impossible.
Last summer, impossible was just a word for these teams of Philadelphia-area high school students.
Imagine an app designed to improve overall literacy rates in Philadelphia. What about hand sanitizer hubs scattered across the city to curb disease rates and improve overall hygiene? How about an immersive, grassroots service that improves graduation rates by educating and incentivizing teens without resources to graduate high school and apply to college? Maybe even an education and distribution service for a cutting-edge antidote to lower overall heroin overdose rates?
These were not ideas pitched by a group of seasoned social entrepreneurs, but by this same group of 16-year-olds. These students were tasked with devising a comprehensive social-impact strategy and transforming it into a compelling pitch for a group of panelists, all in less than 24 hours.
There was one catch: They could not use the Internet.
Last summer at the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative hosted a week-long boot camp as part of the Germination Project, an organization that aims to re-establish Philadelphia as a national force in culture, innovation, and policy. A flagship initiative of the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation, the Germination Project pulls the best and the brightest from high schools throughout the greater Philadelphia area to make their mark on the city. Acting as a lifelong incubator for these young leaders, the Germination Project invites these ambitious students into a committed fellowship that equips them with invaluable skills, mentorship, and opportunities with the expectation that they will pave new opportunities and pour their talent back into Philadelphia. (Germination founder Ajay Raju is also co-founder and a board member of The Citizen.)
This class of students, dubbed “fellows,” embarked on a training camp fueled by guided mentorship, interactive team-building exercises, and lunchtime talks from Philadelphia luminaries—all designed to maximize their potential in leadership, social change, and entrepreneurship. The camp focused on the process of working with others in a team setting in hopes of collectively forming impactful solutions.
“We each had different ideas based on our beliefs, our experiences, and our school curriculums. It was pretty cool how all of these such different views from across Pennsylvania came together and became a team. For me, working through those differences was one of my favorite parts of the boot camp,” said 2016 Germination fellow, Samuel Turner. “Our group spent a lot of time working to come to an agreement, and I realized that you have to listen as much as you have to be able to give your own opinion. I think listening is a critical quality to being a good leader.”
Along with problem-solving exercises and team-building activities, the camp featured multiple speakers over the course of the week. These speakers are influential and important figures within Philadelphia. This year, the speaker lineup featured reporter Dave Spadaro of Eagles Insider; Bill Green, former City Councilman and Chair of the School Reform Commission; Dr. Marisa Porges, Baldwin’s Head of School; and Sozi Pedro Tulante, City Solicitor of Philadelphia.
“We each had different ideas based on our beliefs, our experiences, and our school curriculums,” said 2016 Germination fellow Samuel Turner. “Our group spent a lot of time working to come to an agreement, and I realized that you have to listen as much as you have to be able to give your own opinion.”
“The lunch speakers were among my favorite experiences at boot camp. The lineup would be representative of many facets of life, such as someone from maybe education, economics, a lawyer, or a doctor. What inspired me about their conversations was their path to success, sometimes from poorer backgrounds, and the connections that they made along the way,” commented 2016 Germination fellow Matthew Tucker.
After the camp, fellows work with their mentors and colleagues in specialized teams to embark on service initiatives to tackle some of the city’s most pressing problems. Most recently, Germination fellows undertook a large-scale initiative with the American Heart Association (AHA) to train over 10,000 low-income Philadelphians in live-saving CPR techniques. They are also working to make CPR certification a high school requirement throughout Philadelphia.
The next big initiative for the Germination fellows class is soon to come. “I am very excited to move into the next phase of the project in which my class of fellows will develop a series of social impact initiatives that will better Philadelphia,” said 2017 Germination fellow Nick Chimicles. “The connections that my peers and I will gain through not only my other Germination peers, but also [founder] Ajay [Raju], will likely be quite beneficial to us in the future. However, the webs of connections that are being built will not only be utilized for the interests of those within the web but also for this lifelong community of social impactors who will better Philadelphia.”
My high school, The Haverford School is one of many area schools to nominate young sophomores for consideration into the Germination fellowship. After a rigorous application process in which academic transcripts, essays, and interviews are reviewed, fellows are considered and chosen. So far, nine Haverford students have been accepted into the program, now in its fourth year.
Last year, I, along with my Haverford School classmates Nick Chimicles and Alec Manko, were selected as 2017 Germination fellows and participated in the Wharton boot camp.
“Our interview process is intense,” said Raju, CEO of Dilworth Paxson LLP and founder of the Germination Project. “In those conversations, it is clear that students are invariably prepared and practiced. They demonstrate a sincere, quiet leadership that can be refined early and sustained over the long term.”
Neetish Sharma, a senior at The Haverford School, is a 2017 Germination Fellow.