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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Kroc School Students Win Knowledge, Feedback, And Money For Ventures at Inaugural USD Innovation Challenge

Written by Grayson Walker, MA

IMG_3374“Transformational learning” is a core component of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies’ mission to equip and empower changemakers, and three enterprising Kroc School graduate students experienced that firsthand at the inaugural 2023 University of San Diego Innovation Challenge this past Friday. Here at the Kroc School and USD, innovation & entrepreneurship are crucial components of our students' learning experience. We aim to equip them with the skills and mindsets necessary to create, innovate, and solve real-world problems so that more people and our planet can flourish. Master of Arts in Social Innovation (MASI) students Lydia Halcott and Myah Pace and MA in Peace and Justice student Aakriti Adhikari were among the twelve semi-finalists for the USD Innovation Challenge, a brand new collaborative effort between the Kroc School, the Knauss School of Business, and the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. The shared goal was to ensure that students are prepared to innovate and succeed in an ever-changing and competitive world. 

Despite the competition being in its first year, the USD Innovation Challenge received a whopping 28 venture submissions from student teams across schools and disciplines during its application period. The depth of the submission pool “demonstrated the breadth of commitment our students have towards impact and entrepreneurship”, shared Kroc School’s Dr. Andrew Biros, who reviewed submissions alongside colleagues from the business and engineering schools. 


Myah Pace is a MA in Social Innovation student who participated in the Semi-Finals.

While every venture had to include a fundamental consideration of the stakeholders involved and potential social impact, the competition included ventures that were purely for profit, technological advances, and social innovations alike. The three Kroc School students who advanced to the semi-final round spearheaded the contingent of social impact ventures. Myah Pace’s nonprofit venture The Her Hands Project combined Myah’s expertise in architecture and design with her passion for helping under-resourced middle school girls in a unique and compelling way. Myah reflected, “When we contend with the vast array of marginalized or vulnerable people groups in the U.S, we as innovators can often feel overwhelmed by the need to make a positive change in countless number of communities. However, I believe that it is most important to begin by aligning our personal passions with our commitment to serving others. It is through this perspective of thought that I was blessed to create and design “Her Hands Community Design Collective” - a multi-faceted career readiness and delinquency prevention program for middle school girls”. Even though she did not ultimately advance to the finals, Myah still expressed her appreciation for the mentorship and support she received from the Kroc School during the application process, which helped her refine the concept of the Her Hands Project into a solid business model that can be expanded upon moving forward. 


Lydia Halcott is a MA in Social Innovation student who received $500 in venture funding.

Lydia Halcott’s venture, Rest Up!, addressed a similarly compelling issue - the vulnerability of women experiencing homelessness in San Diego. Rest Up! is an overnight program that uses a trauma-informed approach to ensure the safety and security of women who are sleeping outside of a shelter, with an aim to combat the victimization, sexual assault, and drug abuse of women experiencing homelessness. “Our mission is to create a world where every woman has the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and healthy life, regardless of their housing situation”, Lydia shared. Having created the idea during the Fall semester in her Social Innovation class,  Lydia  has already begun putting her venture into action, part of the reason it was selected as one of the Innovation Challenge’s six finalists. 

Also selected to advance to the final round was Aakriti Adhikari’s Embrace The Red, a venture based in her home country of Nepal with a mission to destigmatize menstruation and provide girls in schools with sustainable feminine hygiene products through a vending machine distribution system. “It is highly important to destigmatize menstruation, and let our menstruators live a life without shame and discrimination; we want our menstruators to be comfortable with their bodies”, Aakriti shared passionately from the stage.

After the semi-finals round, the six top ventures (as selected by a group of twelve semi-finalist judges) pitched live on stage in front of five VIP judges, which included Spark @USD advisory members Karen Henken and Carter Crockett. Teams competed for a share of $20,000 in funds from the Larry Kull Endowed Student Award, a USD fund established to honor Dr. Larry Kull, former COO, and President of Science Applications International Corporation. Additionally, two of the finalists were selected to represent USD at the 2023 Finals of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge, a competition co-organized by USD and the University of St. Thomas where students from around the world gather to compete for seed funding for ideas grounded in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In front of a theater full of their peers, Lydia and Rise Up! won $500 to continue implementing her services, and Aakriti and Embrace The Red won not only $1,000 in funding but the opportunity to represent USD and compete in the Global Finals of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge alongside USD Innovation Challenge Grand Prize winner and MBA student Jorge Muniz. “We are proud that one of those [Global Finals] teams includes Kroc School graduate student Aakriti Adhikari. It has been an honor to work with Aakriti this year and help her refine her venture, aimed at gender equality and healthcare for young women and girls in Nepal. I can't wait to watch her compete on the global stage at the upcoming Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge”, remarked Dr. Biros, who served as Aakriti’s faculty advisor for the USD Innovation Challenge. 


Aakriti Adhikari is a MA in Peace and Justice student who received $1,000 in venture funding.

Aakriti and Embrace The Red will compete for a share of $75,000 in seed funding at the Global Finals in June, an experience she is “super excited and looking forward to.” Aakriti reflected on her journey and the experience of the pitch competition as a whole: 

“The USD Innovation Challenge has been an amazing learning experience for me. The process of coming up with an idea and eventually giving life and structure to that idea was beautiful. I have learned to pay attention to minute details, understood the details of finances in a business (as someone with no background in business), and have grown so much through the process. It was amazing to see how diverse all the teams and ideas were - hearing about these projects and their individual experiences gave me different perspectives. I will definitely continue with my project in the future and this innovation challenge has given me such valuable feedback and responses that I will work on while continuing to embrace the red. I also want to say thank you to my advisor for the challenge, Dr. Andrew Biros, for all the support and the entire team for bringing this together and making it happen.”

The successes of Myah, Lydia, and Aakriti in the USD Innovation Challenge will undoubtedly pale in comparison to their future accomplishments, but the challenge exceeded expectations as a testing stage and sounding board for students not just at the Kroc School but all across campus to develop their creative solutions to the world’s most pressing issues. The Challenge could not have been such a success without the help of our experienced volunteer judges, our collaborators at the business and engineering schools, and the hard work and creativity of USD and Kroc students. 

You can learn more about the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge at www.fowlergsic.org.

Grayson Walker, MA

About the Author

Grayson Walker, MA

Grayson is a graduate of the Kroc School of Peace Studies where he earned his MA in Social Innovation.