October 22, 2013

Solving Problems That Matter

Zelong Le

Growing up in an underprivileged town in Texas, Zelong Le saw firsthand the devastating way poverty can rip through family lives.  As a Wentworth student he found an opportunity to help folks like the ones he grew up with through the Social Innovation Lab.

“If I could help alleviate their pain even a little, that is the ultimate goal,” says Le, BELM ’15.

A collaboration between the Accelerate Wentworth Innovation + Entrepreneurship Center, and the Center for Community and Learning Partnerships, the Social Innovation Lab challenges students to focus on product and technology innovations that impact communities and improve lives. Students from different disciplines work together as peer groups in an interdisciplinary context. They examine problems, generate ideas for solutions, think systemically, create prototypes, and finally, work toward pushing their ideas to implementation. An innovator-in-residence, Jeanne Dasaro, was available to act as a sounding board along the way together with numerous mentors from Wentworth’s alumni base and Boston’s ecosystem.

Le’s project is entitled Critical Link. While sites like Yelp and GrubHub help hungry users quickly find a place to eat through an easy-to-use, regularly updated platform, Le relates that there is no such platform for social workers to find the help they need. Critical Link would house a database of resources such as rehabilitation clinics, affordable daycare facilities, food banks, and job training sites, and place them at the fingertips of a social worker, easily accessible when they’re needed fast.

“Social workers have so little time and they could really use something to help them quickly connect to people to offer the help their clients need,” says Le. “If they can work faster and more efficiently, they can reach more people.”

Le sees a direct connection between social work and the preventing homeless plight that he witnessed in years past. “Homelessness, addiction, and other problems are so prevalent in urban environments like Boston,” he says. “Social workers help get people on the right path before they ever get to a dire place. It’s preventative care.”

Le credits the Social Innovation Lab with getting his idea off the ground and showing him how to properly promote it.  “These lessons extend into regular life, as well,” says Le. “Pitching yourself in a job interview, pitching yourself at work – the lab helps with all of that.”

Despite working on different projects, Le believes that everyone in the lab roots for one another to do well. He credits that mentality to the program’s interdisciplinary approach, bringing differing ideas from various disciplines together for one goal: success.

But teamwork is not the only component that attracted Le to the Social Innovation Lab. From the beginning, he loved the lab’s real world approach and desire to help solve social issues. His next steps include finding Critical Link team members to help with the project, including researching and promotion duties, to move the idea closer to an actual product.

“The Social Innovation Lab and Accelerate are both great, innovative ways to see how your individual skillset can affect the rest of the world,” Le says. “You’re really exposed to great resources and great people through these programs.”

The Social Innovation Lab has already proved successful for one Wentworth student team, Gentoo Inc., with Greg Affsa, INDS ’15, and Ben Nadeau, BELM ’13 -- which recently competed at MassChallenge. Other students and projects to come out of the lab include: Ross Wilkie, BSME ’15, with an idea to re-engineer the baby stroller experience; Huma Abdul Rauf, BMED, ’15, creating Sonas, a way for visually impaired individuals to experience the world more seamlessly; and Sam Loso, ARCH ’15, tackling recycling and its sustainability within large organizations and college campuses.

“We have seen all of the students participating in the Social Innovation Lab continuing as part of our Startup Challenge,” says Monique Fuchs, associate vice president, Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Wentworth. “Their desire to translate their solutions into reality demonstrates their commitment to the communities they have worked with over the summer.”

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