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Create and Lead

Sommer Scholars have a knack—and a need—for founding NGOs.

By Valerie Conners

"Boldness has magic.”

That, says Raj Panjabi, sums up the single most important leadership lesson he learned at the Bloomberg School. Panjabi, MD, MPH ’06, is founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, a Liberia-based NGO with the mission to save lives in the world’s most remote villages by recruiting and training community health workers.

“The courage to pursue boldness,” he adds, “is a moral choice.”

Panjabi credits the Bloomberg School’s Sommer Scholars Program with bolstering his ability to found his NGO.

The Sommer Scholars Program, which awards full tuition and a stipend to selected students, provides unique leadership enrichment. Since 2005, nearly 250 scholars have graduated from the program.

“A common thread among many Sommer Scholars is an entrepreneurial spirit; they’ve been selected for having demonstrated leadership qualities,” says program faculty director Lainie Rutkow, PhD ’09, MPH ’05, JD, herself a member of the first class of Sommer Scholars. “They saw a problem, saw it wasn’t being addressed in a way they thought was effective and decided to do something about it.”

Case in point: former Sommer Scholar Lynn Huynh, DrPH ’12, MPH/MBA ’07. In 2002, she co-founded VietHope, an NGO providing education access to disadvantaged students in Vietnam. Huynh recognized the empowering role that education played in her life and strove to bring similar opportunities to children in Vietnam.

After launching the NGO, Huynh says, the co-founders faced their greatest challenge: keeping it sustainable. She attributes VietHope’s success to the dedication of the group of friends who created it.

“For anyone starting a new nonprofit, consider whether you have a good group of core individuals who will be there in the next five to 10 years,” she says. “That becomes more important than fundraising.”

Huynh’s experience in the leadership program inspired her to develop an enrichment program, the Youth Development Summit.

“It’s a domino effect,” says Huynh. “You’re not teaching a single skill set; you’re teaching something to sustain people for the remainder of their lives.”