By James Irwin
Social change leaders from all over the world, including a large contingent from the George Washington University, assembled at Arizona State University March 21 to 23, at the seventh-annual meeting of Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U).
More than 1,000 entrepreneurs from all 50 states and more than 80 countries discussed collaborative projects and social change at the weekend-long event, which featured former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., TV host Jimmy Kimmel and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
The annual event has been held since 2008 at college campuses across the country. GW hosted in 2012.
“It was awesome—very inspiring and engaging,” said Mariam Adil, a graduate student in the Elliott School of International Affairs and team lead on a group developing video games as learning tools for international development projects like food security and conflict management. “They had a breakout session on gaming for public health with Asi Burak, president of Games for Change, which fits perfectly with what we’re doing, and within the session we really had a chance to interact with him.”
GW, which joined the CGI U Network a year ago, sent 15 students to the annual meeting. The attendees had opportunities leading up to the conference to meet with each other through various events hosted by GWupstart and the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. The university also made a commitment earlier this year in funding a social entrepreneurship prize in the GW Business Plan Competition, part of GW’s CGI Commitment to Action.
“It was nice having an organized hub for these students to go to as a resource,” said Matt Wilkins, a graduate student studying biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “By the time we went to Arizona we all knew about each other and our commitments and what to expect from the conference.”
Mr. Wilkins was attending his third CGI U event. His commitment, Panda Cycles (now Pedal Forward), won a bracket challenge at CGI U 2012, hosted at GW. Pedal Forward, with a goal of providing a sustainable solution to transportation issues, manufactures and sells bamboo bicycles domestically and abroad, and uses domestic sales to subsidize international costs. This summer, Pedal Forward will host a workshop at Ballou High School, a public school in D.C., on how to build bamboo bikes.
The project raised enough money to donate 35 bicycles in Tanzania last year.
“We want to go a step further,” Mr. Wilkins said. “We want to create a bicycle industry in these villages using our bamboo bike manufacturing techniques, and provide an economic boost for communities.”
Other GW commitments included a project from Elliott School and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences senior Angela Schopke, who is creating a platform to use dance for conflict resolution in Afghanistan, and Ms. Adil’s first gaming project, called “Randomania.” Like a forecasting tool, the game would allow development professionals to simulate randomized control trials and measure the potential impact of projects prior to implementation. Randomania will be tested as a prototype at a World Bank Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund workshop this summer.
“Impact evaluation is big in clinical trials—as with placebo pills,” Ms. Adil said. “In international development you might not be talking about pills, but instead talking about schools or roads that receive random trial support in order to see what solution works best. The art of development—going into the field and interacting with people—involves political, ethical and cultural challenges. This game tells you how to design a randomized control trial by simulating those constraints.”
CGI U speakers, including Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy and Ashoka CEO Bill Drayton, provided entertaining, inspirational advice throughout the weekend. For the students, the ability to collaborate with the world’s leading social entrepreneurs—a hallmark of the Clinton Global Initiative—was most beneficial. Mr. Wilkins and a small group of students ate lunch one day with a handful of CGI members and Mr. Wilkins found himself sitting next to Premal Shah, president of the microlending nonprofit organization Kiva.
“He told me it’s more important to have 10 people absolutely love what you are working on than to have 1,000 people think it’s pretty cool,” Mr. Wilkins said. “I took away a lot from that.”