December 23, 2021 by Alexandra Indira Sanyal

As 2021 comes to a close and we prepare to graduate this last class of the Crossroads Emerging Leaders Program and launch applications for the inaugural class of Aspire Leaders Program, the Aspire Institute team is taking a moment to to reflect on the past year and all the incredible, young minds we’ve had the pleasure of working with.

2021 was an exciting year for us — we reached students across 135 countries; offered thousands of fully-funded HarvardX courses to low-income students (worth over $1million); and held vibrant sessions directly connecting students to industry and academic leaders. Our finalist class of 114 students was a diverse group of aspiring leaders, 47% Male and 53% Female, from cities across the Middle East, South Asia, Central & East Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Since completing the five stage program over the course of eight or so months, our class of finalists has been hard at work dedicating the end of 2021 applying for a series of Extended Learning Opportunities — including the Community Action Awards, Academic and Professional Development Grants, a Mentorship Program and in-region internship placements. We have been continuously amazed by the imaginative, entrepreneurial, and scholarly projects our finalists have come up with and shared with us. We hope that you can find similar inspiration and energy from them, too. 

It is our hope that, through the experience of interacting with diverse peers and case studies through our program, our finalists are uniquely equipped to play a role in advancing vibrant ecosystems for innovation and entrepreneurship globally. That is why we launched The Community Action Awards (CAA), granted to student projects dedicated towards social change in their country of residence. Each student proposes a partnership with a relevant partner organization which plays the role of financial intermediary and local support system and, if selected, has a mentor from one of our affiliate universities to help guide the project. 

This year we had a group of over 30 students from around the world who were eager to conceptualize community action interventions and business models to bring back to their home countries. After an initial round of proposals and eligibility checks, a group of 14 students were invited to present their ideas, pecha-kucha* style, to a panel of Harvard Faculty reviewers. 

These presentations proposed projects in Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Cameroon, Armenia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the US. The students pitches ranged from mobile platforms, art education initiatives, agricultural skillbuilding courses, and regenerative eco-markets, to integrated waste management and sanitation systems, sexual violence medical intervention, sustainable sanitary towel development and textile production as a means of cultural preservation. The students proposed engaging with technological tools, such as artificial intelligence, GIS data analytics, and digital marketing, as well as entrepreneurial and educational efforts — some of which were new found passions for these students, as discovered during our 2021 courses. 

The first day of presentations was juried by Harvard Business School’s Kristin Fabbe, Kennedy School’s Asim Khwaja, and one of Aspire Institute’s co-founder and HBS faculty,  Karim Lakhani. The second day’s presentation was assessed by Harvard’s Caroline Elkins and Aspire Institute’s co-founder, Tarun Khanna. After careful deliberation, we will be granting six awards to qualifying project teams and each will receive cash awards in four installments over the course of 2022. Stay tuned to see which projects were chosen! 

In addition to the powerful and inspiring CAA projects, our team has developed our Internship Program, creating connections and collaborating with institutions and companies to place students in internships in countries including Pakistan, Turkey, Chile, the United States and India. The fields range from banking, consumer goods marketing and ecommerce to cybersecurity, renewable energy and health care. While we are extremely excited for the students who have secured positions, we are very committed to finding further opportunities in our other student’s home-countries — a process we hope to continue to perfect in the coming months. 

Lastly, our last few days of 2021 are being spent reviewing applications for our Academic Grant, which funds students to enrich their program learnings through funded enrollment in a verified open online course or certification program, and our Professional Development Grant, which is available for students who require supplemental funds for the next step of their career journeys. We are also reviewing video testimonials sent in by students interested in our Mentorship Program that articulated their academic and professional goals so that we could place them with an appropriate and knowledgeable Harvard Business School alumni as their mentor. 

We are so happy to celebrate these incredible successes of 2021 and are extremely excited to meet the leaders of tomorrow that 2022 will bring. Given the uncertainty of the past few years, we are feeling incredibly thankful for our virtual community that we have fostered.

Your contribution has played a vital part in transitioning from Crossroads Emerging Leaders Program to Aspire Institute. We remain grateful for your support and look forward to working with you in the years to come.

* With an emphasis on speed and conciseness, each presenter is given 3 minutes to present their proposal and the jurrers then have 3 minutes to ask questions.


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