Three Boston University Terriers were among the entrepreneurs recognized as BostInno’s 25 Under 25, an annual competition highlighting young entrepreneurs in the Greater Boston Area that is organized and published by the Boston Business Journal.
The three former students — Hailey Hart-Thompson, a 2021 graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Communication, Yasmin Morais for the RefEd Initiative and Fiona Whittington, a 2019 graduate from COM, for TechTogether — participated in the BUild Lab’s programs.
Morais, a former student at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, was recognized for co-founding the RefEd Initiative, an application that provides tailored educational material in English, Arabic and mathematics to refugee youth.
In an email, Morais wrote that existing solutions are based in crowded classrooms, temporary voluntary programs and inconsistent curricula. Due to these gaps, almost half of all refugee children do not have consistent access to education.
The curriculum is geared towards “students who are left behind by current refugee schooling systems” and aims to help them “continue their studies and re-enter the education system when resettled,” her email said.
This initiative started as an assignment for CAS IR 453 Forced Migration and Human Trafficking class in 2017. After extensive research and brainstorming, the team collaborated with BU Spark! to bring their idea to fruition.
In 2019, the team implemented their pilot program in Athens, Greece. They then extended their reach to Uganda. Currently, RefEd educates approximately 350 children about English literacy. Technology is not accessible everywhere, Morais wrote.
“We learned that our efforts would be more effective when technology is a tool, and not a means in itself,” she wrote. “Providing complex software is less effective than using simple tech tools that would facilitate the learning process, rather than replace it.”
Morais advises other social entrepreneurs to “listen, listen, listen.”
“Engage the people you want to impact in every step of the process. Exercise curiosity and empathy in every step of the way and be honest about the impact you’re creating.”
Innovate@BU Director of External Relations Micaelah Morrill said she paired Morais of the RefEd Initiative and Hart-Thompson of Stateless Collective with mentors at the BUild Lab.
“These are three pretty different teams, but they all did well at the BUild Lab because we’re here to serve all students,” Morrill said.
She said the two teams were “really passionate and really willing to listen … They were great candidates to be mentored.”
Hart-Thompson founded The Stateless Collective: a non-profit focused on preparing students to travel abroad respectfully. Hart-Thompson was unable to be reached for an interview.
Inspired by her personal experiences, Whittington founded TechTogether, a national non-profit aiming to make the hackathon community more gender-inclusive.
“[Attendees] can focus on tackling the hackathon fear and not the fear of being the only woman in the room or getting hit on,” Whittington said in an interview. “They can focus on what’s important, which is their career and their skill-building, and just being present at the event.”
This “supportive” set-up is welcoming to newcomers making their debut in hackathons.
Whittington said on average, half of their attendees are first-time hackers, which is unusual for a hackathon.
“Hackathons are important because they’re … sources of talent into the tech industry and broader workforce,” she said. “When we see a lack of gender diversity at these events, women and other gender diverse individuals are missing out on those really key opportunities.”
TechTogether has hosted hackathons in various cities through its many chapters, reaching over 10,000 individuals.
“We realized that we can work together across universities to put together these events and achieve much better results than as if just a couple of students from one university were to try and do this alone,” she said.
While acknowledging the pressure student entrepreneurs face, Whittington encouraged students to consider embarking on their entrepreneurial aims while in college.
“As a college student, you are going to have more resources than anybody else because colleges invest heavily into trying to make their students successful,” she said. “Once you graduate, it’s so much harder to find funding [and] to find people to talk to you.”