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Partners in Innovation

by Mary K. Zajac

Like many great inspirations, the Social Innovation Lab (SIL) emerged from a casual kitchen conversation. Jessica Ladd, MPH ’11, and her then roommate Mélodie Kinet, MPH ’11, MBA, were swapping stories about their nonprofit efforts.

In the quest for sustainability for her project combating STDs, Ladd discovered “there was not a lot of support as to how to proceed”—despite a growing number of students interested in creating nonprofits. Ladd’s project, Sexual Health Innovations, and Kinet’s Sustainable Roots initiative (see below) were radically different, but they had the same needs crucial to any nonprofit launch: everything from how to draft a mission statement to how to raise funds.

Ladd and Kinet’s initial discussion evolved into the peer-driven Social Innovation Lab, a student incubator whose primary purpose is to help “students already working on projects focused on social good to get to the next stage with their projects,” says Ladd, now a third-year PhD candidate in Epidemiology. Launched in August 2011, SIL sponsors a small group of projects by sharing resources and mentoring. The group also hosts biweekly check-in meetings where students draft mission statements, solve problems and network.

While SIL does not supply funding, it does offer the extraordinarily rich expertise of Johns Hopkins students from the Bloomberg School, the School of Medicine, the Carey Business School and the Whiting School of Engineering, as well as social design graduate students from the Maryland Institute College of Art. “Social innovation comes from the fringes, from people coming together and exchanging ideas,” says Ladd. “We need [collaborators in] business, computer science, graphic design, medical fact checkers, pro-bono legal services—[areas] that the School of Public Health didn’t have.” Next year, Ladd hopes to add local experts and faculty mentors who are also drawn from these specialties.

Health-related SIL projects range from the local to the international, from technology based to community based. “The best thing about SIL for me has been connecting with peers from different schools [who are] interested in pursuing the same kinds of endeavors—and connecting with those people to get from idea to research to real world setting,” says medical student Ralph Passarella, who’s launching a Web app called ReifyHealth.

SIL is “like a clearinghouse that connects people with like interests,” says Khadijah Mitchell, a medical student and the founder of Junior Biomedical Scholars. “It’s like the Jessica magic; she can connect people.”

Mitchell says that SIL introduced her to nonprofit leaders from around the city, helped her target financial support from medical organizations and taught her to formulate a pitch about her project and “to refine—not define—[my] mission.”

SIL also has the enthusiastic support of Marie Diener-West, PhD ’84, chair of the School’s Master of Public Health Program and the Abbey-Merrell Professor of Biostatistics Education. “What I think is so exciting about the Social Innovation Lab is that it is a student-run initiative for enabling social change,” says Diener-West. “It fosters cross-school partnerships,” she notes, and promotes the transfer of valuable skills and information that students won’t necessarily learn in the classroom.

Says Ladd, “It’s great from a learning perspective. If you have your own project, everything else you are learning [in school] becomes relevant. And when you can take the information you’ve learned that took days upon days to accumulate and can give it to someone else in five minutes … that’s really satisfying and really efficient.”