When sophomore Hebron Mekuria attended The Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreat, she didn’t know there would be a business pitching competition. The weekend had offered Mekuria a chance to dig into her entrepreneurial dreams with information and tools, the support of her peers and plenty of inspiration. She figured she would enter the competition to get some practice for her entrepreneurship class final at Eastern Mennonite University, and take a shot at the cash prize.
And then she won.
Mekuria, an engineering major and Yoder/Webb Scholar, is passionate about the emotional, psychological, and social needs of children. In her native country of Ethiopia, Mekuria sees a need for empowerment, starting with literacy. Her winning idea works to promote early development of reading habits by creating resources for Ethiopian preschoolers, specifically in the Amharic language. Her win earned her funding to begin the project, and business mentorship connections.
The biannual Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreat is geared towards social impact, seeking to equip students who have ideas with tools for implementing them. The foundation itself supports “service-oriented college students” in the southern United States.
The weekend was filled with workshops, networking activities and space for participants to grow ideas and projects, or develop them more fully. Among the different societal issues participants considered at this event were the more than 90% domestic violence rate in Pakistan, the disconnect between dieting and health, the lack of inclusive gyms for LGBTQ+ people, and more. At the end of the retreat, there was a pitching and prototyping competition.
This win meant a great deal to Mekuria—it was validation of the promise of her plan. “When I found out that I won, I was in disbelief, and the biggest thing for me was that I felt seen,” Mekuria says. “Somehow, out of all the brilliant and ambitious students there, being chosen in the pitching competition just made it feel like my idea was actually worth being pursued, and the problems I identified were worth being solved.”
Spud Marshall, the Sullivan Foundation’s director of student engagement and leader of the retreat, commented in the foundation’s coverage of Mekuria. “We love working with students like Hebron who are actively making a difference in their communities,” he said. “Her peers selected her project to receive funding to take the next step and bring her idea to life! We are thrilled to offer her both financial support and mentorship as she gets started.”
Mekuria’s biggest takeaways? “It’s important to understand the value of your environment in affecting your motivation, self-confidence, and just general outlook,” Mekuria says. “Surround yourself with people that you want to imitate someday.”
Once classes end, Mekuria’s next step will be to meet up with an attendee of Ignite who wants to work with her, and, she says, “get this thing off the ground!”