Empowering New York’s Next Generation of Social Innovators

The Entrepreneurial Design Thinking Program is furthering its mission to elevate innovation in the city’s underserved communities.

Brandee Sanders
July 27, 2022

The path toward purpose is often led by the desire to effect change. The journeys of budding Upper Manhattan-based social entrepreneurs Alyna Brown and Kameron Johnston—two graduates of Columbia University’s Entrepreneurial Design Thinking Program—are reflective of that belief.

For Brown, motherhood led to a period of reflection; sparking the vision for a nonprofit centered on holistically helping young girls develop self-efficacy. For Johnston, a juvenile defense lawyer, witnessing the detrimental impact of a flawed criminal justice system, ignited a desire to develop a business that empowers those who have endured systemic oppression.

Two distinctive missions connected by the notion that entrepreneurship can drive community impact; two ventures fueled by the Entrepreneurial Design Thinking initiative.

Activism Through Entrepreneurship

Intertwining social impact, community investment, and business innovation, the Entrepreneurial Design Thinking Initiative is an eight-week immersive program—which was derived from a Columbia Business School project founded by Jack McGourty dubbed Venture for All—designed to educate and empower New York City residents to create solutions to issues they’re passionate about.

With the support of Flores Forbes, former associate vice president for Community Affairs at Columbia, the initiative was re-envisioned with a community-driven approach. Launched in 2019, the incubator-style program leads participants from the business ideation to execution stage; focusing on local and global issues, identifying gaps in the marketplace, incorporating consumer research into business plans, and ultimately bringing the vision behind their ventures to fruition.

Henry Danner, one of the program’s organizers and the director of youth initiatives for Columbia University’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, explained that  the initiative is driven by the mission of making entrepreneurial education accessible in underserved communities.

“We’re focusing on filling the gap in terms of helping people understand the basics of design thinking and how it correlates to entrepreneurship and solving problems that exist in their communities,” he said. “We wanted to make it free and open to the community. The vision is to create access to these tools and skills for people from under-resourced neighborhoods.”

Since its inception, the program has led four cohorts and supported 100 Black and Brown entrepreneurs throughout the five boroughs. The program is led by Stef Alicia McCalmon, a Columbia University Business School alum who founded Stef Alicia Made; a consultancy and content company that interconnects design thinking and storytelling to elevate initiatives centered on equity.

Business Ventures Powered by Purpose

From ventures centered on bridging the digital divide through eliminating socioeconomic barriers that impact  accessibility to tech to those focused on spreading awareness about food insecurity, the projects backed by the program are reflective of a vast set of social issues. However, one common thread is that they’re all powered by purpose.

Johnston’s Harlem-based tour company, Our Story Tours, merges her passion for preserving the community’s rich cultural history and dedication to helping those affected by the criminal justice system.

“The vision is that Our Story Tours will be an inclusive walking tour company that prioritizes and amplifies the Black and Brown voices of Harlem’s next generation of residents and leaders,” she said. “Through radical storytelling, the company will address this systematic lack of historical preservation that erases Harlem’s rich cultural history by telling the stories of Harlem’s past, present, and future. Our Story Tours is a tour company that will teach and train young people from Harlem that have been victimized by the criminal legal system to lead historical walking tours through Harlem. The goal is to build community power through self-determination and self-agency.”

Johnston strives to use her business as a pathway to help Black and Brown youth launch careers in the travel industry and change the narrative surrounding representation in that space.

Brown’s nonprofit SELF, an acronym for Strengthening and Empowering the Lives of Females, was birthed along her own path toward self-discovery. What started as a commitment to instill the value of self-love into her daughter led to the vision for a nonprofit centered on doing the same for other young girls as they come of age in a society that often perpetuates warped beauty standards.

“I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with self-esteem issues and I knew to prevent that I had to embrace myself,” she said. “SELF is a holistic rite of passage program that helps girls build their self-esteem. We connect with our girls individually to discover their goals and what they’re passionate about. We also focus on the values of sisterhood, cooperative economics, and giving back to your community.”

From yoga sessions to HBCU college fairs, the nonprofit—which is currently gearing up for a September relaunch—has facilitated efforts designed to teach youth about the importance of wellness, education, and civic engagement.

The Essentiality of Economic Empowerment

Research shows disparities around VC funding, specifically pertaining to social impact ventures led by founders of color, persist. Cognizant of the economic inequities, the Entrepreneurial Design Thinking Program awards two Workforce Development Grants, valued at $5,000 and $10,000, to fund the launch of its participants’ projects.

“Having that little bit of wiggle room to pay for things like getting your LLC incorporated or getting your 501c3 status helps to move the needle,” Danner said. “It creates a domino effect. Once they see there are resources to help them at least get started, now they can leverage that to go after more financial resources to help them move their ventures to the next stage.”

To date, the program has awarded $60,000 in endowments.

Johnston and Brown, both grant recipients, shared that beyond receiving funding, their experiences in the program’s MVP Lab were invaluable. The entrepreneurial ecosystem cultivated by the program allowed them to elevate their projects.

“I really appreciated the individualized mentorship that I received through the MVP lab,” said Johnston, whose project is in the first phase of development. “It really helped talking through some of the difficulties of starting up a business, organizing, brainstorming, and helping foster crucial connections.”

As the program gears up for its next cohort, the core of its mission remains rooted in locally planting seeds of empowerment.

“We look at it as seeding new ideas and giving people leverage to keep going,” Danner said.

The Entrepreneurial Design Thinking Program is gearing up for its next cohort. Check out the initiative's website for more information.