An incredible group of the world’s up-and-coming social entrepreneurs descended on the George Washington University campus this weekend, convened to build on their ambitions to change something for the better.
The more than 1,000 college students from all 50 states and 82 countries participated in the fifth-annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), spending a marathon weekend soaking up the advice of A-listers, networking and participating in a massive service project.
To attend the three-day meeting, participants had to pitch a “Commitment to Action,” a specific plan that addresses a problem that may be as close as the other side of their campus or as far as away as the other side of the world. One plan from GW students Chris Deschenes, Jon Torrey and Matthew Wilkins got the endorsement of the former president himself. Panda Cycles, which aims to provide affordable and sustainable bamboo bikes to developing countries, won the CGI U “bracket.”
“This might be the beginning of a sustainable livelihood for people all over the world,” President Bill Clinton said at a Saturday evening session after presenting the students with their basketball “trophy."
Ahead of Saturday’s closing meeting, George Washington Today spent the weekend with the participants. Here’s a look at the highlights:
At Friday’s opener, President Clinton was joined by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, now chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy company; Rye Barcott, co-founder of Carolina for Kibera; Sadiqa Basiri Saleem, executive director of Oruj Learning Center, a girls’ school in Afghanistan; Usher Raymond IV, recording artist and chairman and founder of Usher’s New Look Foundation; and GW President Steven Knapp.
“More than 200 years ago, President George Washington called for the establishment of a great university to forge citizen-leaders,” said President Clinton. “Today, George Washington University is the embodiment of that vision. GW is the perfect host for this conference.”
President Clinton described how, during his years in the policy world, high-ranking government officials consistently argued over two major questions: what should we do, and how much money should we spend? They often overlooked the most important third question: How do we actually do it? Young people are often much better at answering this question, he said.
“One reason we see so much innovation coming from college students is that if you don’t have a lot of money, you have no choice but to be innovative,” President Clinton said. “Creativity is really important. Don’t be discouraged if what you’re doing starts off helping a relatively small number of people. If you take it to scale, it could change the future.”
President Clinton introduced Dr. Knapp, who he said “has worked tirelessly to make education possible for thousands of students.”
“As president of George Washington, he’s made it a priority to increase student opportunities in public service,” President Clinton said. He described how Dr. Knapp became the first GW president to choose to live on campus, and told the audience about the “green” renovations and sustainable features Dr. Knapp added both to his own home and to numerous campus buildings.
“This kind of complete view of public service, how it permeates every decision he makes, makes President Knapp not just the president to the students at GW, but an inspiration to people everywhere,” he said.
The panelists explained their work in public service and the take-away lessons they wanted to share with CGI U participants. “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” Mr. Barcroft said, describing the entrepreneurial prowess of a woman he met in Kibera, a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya, who sold vegetables for years to earn enough money to open a tiny medical clinic for her community. “And so the question is, how do you guys connect that talent with opportunity?”
Secretary Albright spoke about the widening gap between the rich and the poor, which she believes is one of the world’s most significant problems, as well as her work with the National Democratic Institute in teaching democracy-building skills on a person-to-person level.
“You can’t impose democracy. That’s an oxymoron,” she said. “But what you can do is support those who want to learn the skills of democracy.”
Usher said that despite his overwhelming musical success, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being known only “for screaming fans.”
“Youth can make a difference, and I felt like I could make a difference,” he said. “And the New Look Foundation became what it is today, successfully leading a charge to give youth a voice, and preparing leaders with a service mindset, of course.”
Dr. Knapp said his pride in leading a service-minded university like GW stems from the fact that the impetus to institutionalize a mission of service started with the students. He congratulated CGI U participants on the creativity and dedication he had seen in their commitments. “You are making a transformative difference in our world,” he said.
On Saturday morning, attendees started off their day bright and early with a session on—what else?—failure.
Failure is nothing to be ashamed of, agreed a panel including Robin Chase, founder and CEO of Buzzcar; Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green; Ashifi Gogo, CEO of Sproxil; and Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter. The greatest successes come out of the greatest failures, they said.
“Failure looks great on a resume,” said Mr. Stone. “All of the experience you get, the ups and downs and highs and lows of that are usually awesome. That’s awesome that you tried that. That’s the kind of spirit we want.”
After the opening, participants headed off to one of nine different sessions. Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW’s Office of Sustainability, and Amitai Etzioni, University Professor and professor of international affairs, served on panels about sustainability and preventing genocides and mass atrocities.
Ms. Chapple-Brown detailed GW’s efforts to increase sustainability initiatives on campus, mentioning the newly created sustainability minor and the pledge Dr. Knapp recently signed to reduce energy use and promote a greener campus. Her advice to students interested in leading sustainable efforts was to be courageous and be a “chameleon” so they can adapt to different situations.
Later that afternoon, participants convened again as Chelsea Clinton led a panel discussion on how to create economic opportunity for future generations. Tamara Draut, vice president of policy and programs at Demos; Cynthia Koenig, CEO of Wello; Luis A. Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank; and Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, participated.
By the evening, CGI U participants came back together in a closing ceremony where they could pick the brain of the former president.
President Clinton called on students to address what he described as an issue that is close to his heart—mixing prescription drugs and alcohol. Mentioning the recent death of GW graduate student Benjamin Gupta, whom President Clinton knew personally, he asked students to spread the word on campuses across the world that mixing the two can be lethal.
“Every one of you can go back to your campuses and make sure that every single student in every college and university here represented, knows that simple fact,” President Clinton said. “For no money, and next to no time, you can save a very large number of lives.”
Mr. Stewart came on stage next to lead an interview and question-and-answer session with President Clinton.
President Clinton said CGI U is one of the most “selfish” things he does because he enjoys it so much.
“I don’t ever wish I were sitting on an island in the Florida Keys somewhere, going to play golf and drinking piña coladas,” he said.
It hasn’t always been easy or enjoyable, though. In 2009 after the financial crisis, President Clinton said he wasn’t sure his foundation could continue. Programs, and the people who depended on them, were on the line. “I thought, boy, if this sucker doesn’t turn around I am one dead duck.” Hard work and perseverance got him through it, he said.
The final question-and-answer session brought topics ranging from the state of Afghanistan to gay marriage, domestic violence, energy policy and unemployment.
President Clinton also said he hoped to take some of the ideas from students that pertain to American jobs and present them at the Clinton Global Initiative America in June to see if business leaders will support them.
Mr. Stewart said the students were incredible people, and wished them success in their endeavors.
“I’ve rarely been in a room where I felt like I would like to work for each and every one of you,” Mr. Stewart said.
Before heading home Sunday, students joined President Clinton, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and author and television host Wes Moore for a service project in partnership with Rebuilding Together and United Service Organizations. Participants helped with home repairs in Northeast D.C. and assembled care packages for American troops.
In the end, GW participants said the ability to network with other like-minded students was one of their favorite parts of the weekend.
“What I’m taking away from this experience is definitely a network of people that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet otherwise and the inspiration to know that I’m completely capable of achieving everything that I need to,” said Julia Blankenship, a first-year graduate student in art therapy who wants to create an art-based suicide prevention program.
Marisa Ranieri—a senior in the Elliott School of International Affairs whose project is to gather school supplies to take with her when she teaches in Tanzania after graduation—said the weekend showed her how capable young leaders could be.
“Having CGI U [at GW], it’s really just a testament to the university and our commitment to action,” Ms. Ranieri added.