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An international audience tuned in July 21 for the third installment of Solve’s interactive Solving from Anywhere webinar series. The insightful discussion tackled the role that innovation plays in addressing global challenges, whether through cutting-edge data science or philanthropy. Hala Hanna, Managing Director, Community, MIT Solve moderated the conversation with Solver Abhilasha Purwar, Founder and CEO, Blue Sky Analytics; Sarah Geisenheimer, Managing Director, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation; and Payal Dalal, Vice President, Global Programs, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.
To hear the full conversation, watch the webinar recording.
Responding to crisis
Emerging partnerships enable The Rockefeller Foundation to find innovative ways to offer immediate assistance to those who need it amid a string of current global crises. “We’re committing $100 million to address the crisis [caused by Covid-19]—the health crisis but also the inequities. First, we’re focused on a national testing and tracing action plan calling for 30 million Covid-19 tests by October,” Geisenheimer said. “We know that [under-resourced communities] are more than twice as likely to be infected than high-income neighborhoods.”
Besides tackling the prominent issues of health security and safety, Geisenheimer added that The Rockefeller Foundation has taken strides to address food insecurity in places like Dallas, Texas in light of the pandemic. “We’ve created an emergency access fund, particularly for Dallas, where there are 135,000 students—85 percent of whom are in need,” she said on the Rockefeller Foundation’s partnership with the Urban School Food Alliance.
To offer mental health resources to healthcare workers working around the clock to fight Covid-19, The Rockefeller Foundation has also partnered with Google to create an app called Health Heroes. “This app is incredible. It’s working to support our healthcare providers on the frontlines who are experiencing, in some cases, extreme mental distress, because they’re seeing more deaths than they’ve seen before,” Geisenheimer added. “They’re working long hours, and this app will help them track their own mental health and connect them to low-cost resources.”
Rethinking philanthropy in the digital age
Dalal echoed Geisenheimer’s thoughts on the way the current pandemic has exacerbated socioeconomic inequalities throughout all levels of society, reiterating that Mastercard’s commitment is not only to investing in growth, but inclusive growth.
Dalal spoke about the company’s novel philanthropic efforts to invest in Covid-19 relief grants and recovery resources for small businesses around the world, providing not only the capital and tools they need, but a playbook for pivoting to the new normal. “How do we help them adjust to the new normal, which is all about taking advantage of the digital economy?” Dalal asked. “How do we help them navigate things like e-commerce and pivot from in-person customer relations to online?”
Even the traditional dynamics of philanthropy itself are changing. In fact, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth are partnering on data for social impact to bridge the capacity gap between the private sector’s data science capabilities and the public sector’s needs.
“Funders need to think differently about the dynamic—historically it tended to be transactional, but now… I think it’s more about dialing up flexibility,” Dalal said. “Data.org is a great example where it’s more than just writing a check, it’s about how we build organizational capacity at an NGO level, whether it’s improving data science and analytics or helping a partner with digitization.”
Dalal added that the degree to which a grantee embraces and adapts to technology plays a crucial role in resiliency now more than ever. She also asked donors to consider the assets they have and what they can offer their partners.
For Blue Sky Analytics, a climate action initiative and Solver team that focuses on satellite-based environmental monitoring, the intersection between philanthropy and data science is instrumental to moving forward in the fight against climate change.
“Our role is to match this data to the people who are moving capital in [high-carbon energy sources] and that’s where I hope we will be able to break this carbon cycle,” founder and CEO Purwar said.
Purwar added that in light of the pandemic, more people are coming to terms with the immense economic risk and dangers that climate change could pose to the international economy.
“People didn’t listen to us in the beginning, but now with [Covid-19], many are thinking, ‘if this health crisis can lead to these kinds of destabilizations across global economies, then what will happen with climate change?’ and climate action has gotten more awareness globally,” Purwar said.
Words of wisdom for future problem-solvers
All three speakers had words of advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs as they try to find the means to offer their ideas and solutions to the world.
“Don’t feel so afraid to experiment; you have literally nothing to lose,” Purwar told viewers. “Fear is a bigger inhibitor than anything else in the world.”
Dalal reflected on the kind of advice she would give to her 20-year-old self, a self-described “Type A” personality, and said she’d tell herself to worry less about planning and being future-oriented and to instead take the time to enjoy what you’re learning. “Just ask for help,” she said. “More often than not, you’re going to get the help you need.”
Geisenheimer told viewers that patience can also pay off in unexpected ways. She shared that she started at the Rockefeller Foundation as a receptionist to help finance her graduate school education. “I had no expectations that I would go any further,” she said. “I just took every opportunity that I could to learn, and by doing that, I was able to move up quite unexpectedly. Have big goals, but also be really happy to learn, spot opportunity, and capitalize on the opportunity.”
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Solve intern Aidan McGovern contributed to this article.
Hala Hanna, Sarah Geisenheimer, Payal Dalal, and Abhilasha Purwar speak during the Solving from Anywhere webinar "Supporting Innovation to Solve World Challenges" on July 21, 2020.