Stern be nimble, Stern be quick: tales of outreach and impact amid a global pandemic

By: Kirstyn Miller
Students presenting in the Coronavirus Research Fellowship Symposium
To say COVID-19 demanded an unparalleled fluidity would be an understatement. Here are three innovative stories of how the Stern undergraduate community responded through a timely professional development program, a meaningful social impact partnership, and a student-run entrepreneurial effort.


Coronavirus Response Fellows Program

In an effort to support the continued career growth of students whose employment has been affected by COVID-19, as well as to combat the negative global effects of the virus, the NYU Stern Undergraduate Professional Development and Career Education team hosted an 8-week summer lab program for Stern undergraduate students and recent graduates (classes of 2020-2023) without summer employment. Rooted in design thinking, the program guided students to discover real-world business solutions to problems created by COVID-19 while gaining career-ready skills often developed in traditional internships. We sat down with James Kingham, Executive Director of Professional Development and Career Education, to get a closer look.

How did the fellowship come to fruition? How were you able to respond to the need so quickly?
It was really Mandy Lancour, Associate Director of Professional Development and Career Education, who came to me late spring when we started to recognize that students were losing out on internship offers and that those who didn't have internships or full-time jobs yet were probably going to be empty-handed and, furthermore, in a virtual environment. So Mandy came up with the idea to do an experiential learning program for students that entailed putting together a series of workshops and have them work on their own professional skills but also do something tangible with impact. I think because we're a small team and because we got such a great response from Robert Whitelaw, Vice Dean of the Undergraduate College, we were able to be pretty nimble. And in a short period of time, we sketched out a framework of the program.

When you discovered that student career development was being heavily affected by COVID-19, what exactly did that look like for students?
We first started to hear from some students that their offers were being rescinded. Then the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) began to construct webinars and emails reporting that a growing percentage of employers might alter or rescind internship programs and full-time offers. We also noticed a crowdsourced Reddit thread where students self-reported rescinded offers. When we verified with employers, it was definitely part of the context where we thought, wait a minute, we have to do something. We have to provide a backstop for students who are suddenly empty-handed because they're not going to be able to get another job that easily.

Aside from the pandemic, while you were developing the fellowship program, there were other major events happening in the United States–mass protests in response to police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor chief among them. Did this play a role at all in the development of the fellowship program? 
Absolutely. As we were launching the program, George Floyd was murdered. So, although we didn't initially design the fellowship to be a response to racial injustice, we felt like it would be a mistake to not include that in some way. We incorporated a workshop led by Monroe France, NYU’s Associate Vice President of Global Inclusive Strategic Leadership and Engagement & Deputy Chief Diversity Officer, and Gary Fraser, Stern’s Associate Dean for Diversity & Inclusion, on inclusion and the impact that we make in the world. This prompted thought about all of the different people in society and how they're going to use the product or service, designing things with more than one socioeconomic class or race in mind, researching the true impact of an issue on everyone in society, and challenging biases in conducting research. We were really happy about how we were able to get a lot of people around the University, from both NYU and Stern, behind this to create an opportunity for students.

The program guided students to discover real-world business solutions to problems created by COVID-19 while gaining career-ready skills often developed in traditional internships. What were some of the skills that were focused on in the fellowship?
We really wanted to mimic a course in some ways, as well as a work environment, so we had an idea to come up with an eight-week syllabus with deliverables and assignments, such as to update your LinkedIn profile or reach out to three alumni you've never met and ask them to tell you more about their career, so there was a professional development component to it. Through workshops, students gained skills fundamental to their tracks, whether that was rooted in research, entrepreneurship, or consulting. Then all students learned project management, self-advocacy and networking, purpose and remembering the "why" in terms of diversity and inclusion, communicating (in a management context) ideas to a variety of stakeholders and audiences, and how to seek and act on feedback. Finally, we wanted there to be some kind of final deliverable, so we had a symposium where we shared a series of webinars of the students' projects.

“I cannot tell you how much easier the recruitment process has been for me due to this interesting and unique opportunity, and I am so grateful to be a part of a community who worked incredibly hard to make this fellowship possible. I learned so much from it.”
Sophie Noshirwani (BS ‘22)

What was the highlight of the program to you?
I think just how many people answered the call: faculty, staff, alumni. We had people from the global team, alumni relations, NYU, and more–everyone rallied together to help us out.

What would you say is the lasting effect of the fellowship?
It is a proof of concept that shows us that we can actually rapidly build something to support students who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to find the employment they’re looking for.

What were the results of the fellowship?
We ended up accepting 212 fellows with a 100% completion rate. And thanks to generous alumni contributions and existing corporate sponsorship funds, we were able to provide a total of $130,000 in financial awards, matching what the NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development gives as the unpaid internship grant. We also recruited more than 80 alumni volunteers to serve as coaches and mentors to the students. We kind of realized it wasn't going to be perfect. There were going to be some things that we were going to have to kind of makeup as we went along. But I think, all things considered, it turned out really nicely.

Students presenting in the Coronavirus Response Fellows Symposium
Students presenting in the Coronavirus Research Fellowship Symposium

Social Impact Consulting with the Joint SDG Fund

Next up, we have another experiential learning program, but this time on the social impact front: the Social Impact Consulting course. This course is open to both Stern and NYU students and involves working closely with participating nonprofits as social impact strategy consultants creating project outcomes that add value to the organization’s strategic objectives on real problems with real beneficiaries and real stakeholders. Since 2012, 216 students have completed 55 projects with 28 different organizations, including the Rainforest Alliance, Democracy Works, Teach for America, and 92Y. We sat down with Professor and Director of Business Ethics and Social Impact Programming, Matt Statler, who secured a partnership with the Joint Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Fund to be a client for the course.

During this time where we have to be innovative, what prompted you to want to make the Joint SDG Fund a client in the Social Impact Consulting course?
The Sustainable Development Goals provide us with the highest level, global consensus, about what people, planet, and profit (the 3 P’s of sustainability) entail. It has 17 goals and a big framework that hundreds of countries and companies (nonprofits, NGOs, civil society sectors) were involved in its creation. In general, we work with the Sustainable Development Goals on a number of fronts as a framework in the Business and Society Program and in the Social Impact core curriculum. Specifically, then, we came into contact with the executive director of the Joint SDG Fund right as the organization was starting. It’s a really unique, kind of start-up organization in the huge UN bureaucracy that’s designed to align investment grant funding in private sector investments to make progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. This is their second time as a client, but the challenge this semester, given everything going on, focused on exploring a crowdfunding strategy for the fund to generate interest from Millennials and Gen-Zers in the U.S. and around the world.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Joint SDG Fund as a client? How will you know that it is successful?
It’s kind of like a feasibility study. The project is successful even if it leads to nothing. If the Joint SDG Fund discovers that this is not a good way to go forward, that’s still a blind alley the organization doesn’t have to walk down in the future. Ideally, students would end the semester with a plan, or a set of recommendations, and thereby unlock a new source of funding and engagement around the sustainable development goals.

Why is it important to continue to develop the Social Impact Consulting course and what do nonprofits like the Joint SDG Fund bring to the table?
The degree to which businesses are called upon, not just to make money, but to create social and environmental value is growing with time. Stakeholder approaches to management are more important today than yesterday, more important this week than last week—overtime, that’s the trend. In general, the Social Impact Consulting course focuses exclusively and explicitly on nonprofits, giving students the experience of managing for stakeholder interest and looking at strategies that create efficiency or economic benefits. At the same time, it creates social and environmental benefits. It behooves them if they want to work for a nonprofit, it’s good for them if they want to work as a consultant, and it’s generally good for students to have a practical understanding of what that is because they’re all going to get jobs working for businesses in the future.

Nonprofits, in general, bring to the table the actual context for experience—the real world problem or struggle they’re dealing with and the challenge they’re focused on. A lot of times students are accustomed to thinking business problems are to be solved with a calculator or a spreadsheet, or thinking that there is one right answer and it’s just a matter of finding it. However, the reality of nonprofit strategy is that it totally makes a difference how you frame it and how you approach it. There is a need for creativity and imagination insight and intelligence. It’s not just problem solving, it’s also dreaming up new possibilities.

Any other organizations you hope to work with that you haven't already?
The issues that I think are the biggest of our time are climate-related and economic justice and inequality. We will definitely want to focus on racial injustice as a component of, and related to, economic justice. I’d love to have the Black Lives Matter organization as a client.

What is the highlight of the course to you?
That we can use the class to actually help students learn, while at the same time, making the world a better place. It makes it evergreen–there’s no end to the opportunity. I’m really proud to have done the work over the years with all the different organizations.

Ashi Agrawal (BS '21) Keeping the Community Safe

In 2019, the UC celebrated 20 years of the innovative social impact core curriculum. We see the fruits of its labor blooming in student-run initiatives during a time when we need it most. Ashi Agrawal (BS '21) is doing her part to keep the community safe through her business, madebyashi, selling hand-sewn face masks with 100% of profits going towards the Black Lives Matter movement and Saheli, an organization serving South Asian survivors of domestic violence in the Boston area. Cool fact: Ashi is currently in Professor Statler’s Professional Responsibility and Leadership (PRL) class!– a class she credits as being influential in her community-focused entrepreneurship.

Ashi Agrawal (BS '21) wearing a madebyashi face mask
Ashi Agrawal (BS '21) wearing a madebyashi face mask

When/how did you learn to sew? 
I learned to sew in high school when I started taking fashion designing lessons with a tailor, but I restarted over quarantine as a way to pass the time.

Where are you getting your materials from?
I mainly get my materials from Joann Fabrics, but recently have been picking up some designs from Mood Fabrics, a famous NYC fabric store featured on Project Runway. 

How did you come up with the idea and get it off the ground?
When I started sewing over quarantine, my mom wanted me to sew her some face masks. As I started to perfect the pattern, my sister suggested I start selling them. I decided to then donate my proceeds to Black Lives Matter as a way to respond to the racial injustice events happening at the time. I started reaching out to companies locally to match the donation so I could double my impact, and before long I found one and together we raised $4,000!

Who has been supporting you? Who has been buying the masks, and what has their support meant to you?
I posted mainly on my own personal Instagram account and many of my friends and family supported me by putting in orders. I also began reaching out to some influencers I followed and I sent them some sample masks that they posted on their accounts. Their posts definitely led to many new orders as well! I've gotten many kind messages throughout this process, with strangers telling me how inspired they are by my initiative. It's been unbelievably fulfilling for me and I'm so happy I started doing this!

How have your studies here at Stern helped you to create your business?
Since freshman year, I have been exposed to the idea of social impact through Stern's core curriculum. Specifically, in my Professional Responsibility & Leadership class, my peers and I are discussing how to integrate our success by creating a positive impact on our community. Through selling my masks, I have found a sense of fulfillment with my professional life since I've combined everything I've learned in my Stern classes, like Entrepreneurship and Social Media Marketing, with my passion for fashion.

Pallavi Thawani (BS '21) wearing a Made by Ashi face mask       Riya Mital (BS '21) wearing a Made by Ashi face mask       Sophia Sze (BS '21) wearing a Made by Ashi face mask
From left to right: students Pallavi Thawani (BS '21), Riya Mital (BS '21), and Sophia Sze (BS '21) wearing madebyashi face masks