Inspired to Become an Innovation Ambassador

After receiving mentorship from the Big Ideas Contest, Amy Liu, founder and CEO of Partners in Life, became an Innovation Ambassador for both the 2018-2019 academic year and now the 2019-2020 one.

Amy Liu of Partners in Life

By Veena Narashiman

When Amy Liu was a master’s degree student in biology at UC San Diego, she met a recently immigrated Haitian refugee who desperately needed a doula. After four hours of waiting for a professional, Liu—who had volunteered as a doula for a year—assisted the delivery of the woman’s baby over a 35-hour period. Inspired to provide pregnant women with the support they need, she founded Junior Hearts and Hands in August 2017, to connect mothers with doulas in a time-sensitive manner. After receiving mentorship from the Big Ideas Contest, she became an Innovation Ambassador for both the 2018-2019 academic year and now the 2019-2020 one. Liu, founder and CEO of Partners in Life, chatted with Big Ideas about how the program has inspired her (and why you should apply).

How did you hear about Big Ideas and how do you think the Contest aids students in navigating the social impact space?
My startup was incubated in the Basement at UCSD, but I discovered that not much funding is catered toward graduate students or social venture ideas. The Basement is where I saw a Big Ideas flyer that called for students with a social impact vision. I think that a lot of ventures are intrinsically social ventures, but a lot of students don’t see how their creation can change the world. Big Ideas helps you flesh out the vision, and their network proves to you that social ventures can be successful. The mentors function as support and as role models.

Why did you choose to participate in the Innovation Ambassador program and what are your responsibilities?
I get to advertise and brag about Big Ideas to UCSD! Originally the competition was open only to UC Berkeley students, so many students at other UC schools are unaware of the opportunity. Not many students, especially undergraduates, think that they have the ability to change the world. The competition shed that mentality completely, because you’re never doing this alone. It’s such a confidence builder, which is why I think everyone should participate.

What is something you wish you knew about the Big Ideas Contest before you joined?
I didn’t realize competitors were offered mentors! It’s a huge plus point, and differentiates Big Ideas from typical venture contests. You’re not thrown into the deep end after some help with your business proposal—you’re constantly supported throughout the journey. Big Ideas doesn’t simply offer a first, second, and third place. A lot of people can be winners.

What are some of the characteristics of a successful Big Ideas participant?
There’s not a set blueprint (and the different tracks of the competition can allow for a lot of interdisciplinary game plans), but some of the more successful founders I’ve seen had an infectious passion for their idea—-and more importantly, the determination to see it through. You need to be able to seek our criticism and know what you don’t know.

How did Big Ideas help you navigate your journey as a budding innovator? Do you have any advice for students unsure if their idea is “worthy” of the Contest?
Honestly, go for it. You won’t know what might happen if you don’t float your idea to multiple people. You only need one person to nurture you, and you need to take the chance. Lead into the pivoting that comes with a small venture, and if you think your idea is decent, go for it.

Why should students apply to the Contest?
Ultimately, this is a stepping stone you need to make it out there. Big Ideas will help provide you the building blocks to any successful venture: the mentorship, resources, connections, and funding.

Supporting Low-Income Entrepreneurs in Nairobi

When Amelia Hopkins Phillips, executive director of SOMO, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016, her plan was to move to Nairobi, Kenya for six months and then return home. Yet three and a half years later, she’s still there.

How Amelia Phillips Brought her Big Idea to Kenya

By Emily Denny

When Amelia Hopkins Phillips, executive director of SOMO, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016, her plan was to move to Nairobi, Kenya for six months and then return home. Yet three and a half years later, she’s still there.

One of the catalysts for Phillips’ extended stay was the Big Ideas Contest. In 2015, she won first place for SOMO, which identifies, trains, funds, and mentors entrepreneurs looking to drive social change by building enterprises in their own low-income urban communities. Her idea–motivated by previous work with an educational nonprofits which, she said, “exposed her to a lot of unsustainability in the NGO culture in Nairobi ”–was to come up with an idea that could last.

Phillips was also influenced by what she saw at Cal. While majoring in International Studies, she said she constantly noticed the number of resources accessible to her friends and classmates who wanted to start their own businesses in the Bay Area. She questioned why these same resources weren’t accessible in the low-income communities of Kenya.

For that reason, Amelia and her co-founder, George Rzepecki, built Somo to provide training and tools to help low-income Nairobi entrepreneurs build businesses that could change their communities from within. SOMO, which is the root of a Swahili word meaning “lesson,” argues that “we all have lessons to learn from each other and by investing in the right people, we help break the cycle of poverty and help bring long-term stability to urban slum areas.”

Over the past five years, SOMO has grown from a proposal submitted to the Big Ideas Contest to a viable nonprofit, which receives close to 2,000 applications annually from entrepreneurs looking to launch their business ideas. Every year applicants who are accepted undergo a 12-week bootcamp, in which they learn business startup skills and receive funding for their business ideas. Last year 79 participants underwent these bootcamps, and this year there will be a least 170 participants looking to launch their business ideas. So far SOMO helped launch 58 businesses, partnering with them for two years through their acceleration program, that have served up to 140,000 customers and created 258 jobs.

“While Nairobi is a very entrepreneurial place, the lower-income communities are cut off from the resources to launch businesses,” said Phillips, “We at SOMO want to provide the resources that aren’t usually accessible in low-income, urban areas to entrepreneurs who want to start socially-focused business ideas.”

SOMO works within multiple communities in Nairobi and recently expanded to Kisumu in Western Kenya.

“A lot of people who we work with have been told their entire lives that their businesses can’t grow past a certain point,” Phillips said. “We give the hard skills they need to run a business, sure. But more than that, we provide confidence that allows them to grow as people and create lasting impact in their communities.”

When Hilda and Diana, a mother-daughter team, attended their first entrepreneur training class with SOMO, they wouldn’t speak up in class.

“The mother did not speak English and the daughter was only 19 years old and super shy,” said Phillips.

Since the training, not only have Hilda and Diana successfully launched the reusable diaper company, Hidaya Diapers in Korogocho, they also have pitched their business to large audiences and most recently were featured on a national TV station, on NTV Kenya.

“These are two women who would barely speak to me when I first met them. Now they are the two most confident women that I know,” said Phillips.

Phillips aims to help businesses become sustainable, adding “even if SOMO is no longer working with our entrepreneurs in a hands-on way, or even if SOMO closes down tomorrow, the supported businesses and the impact they are creating will last beyond us.” Currently all besides one of the businesses the organization has invested in have been cash-flow positive within 8 months of starting.

One such example of thriving business is Verics, a hydroponics enterprise that received training and funding from SOMO in 2016. Hydroponics is a farming method that doesn’t use soil, and can produce higher yields of crops, requiring less water and decreasing the chance for pollution to contaminate crops. Verics now has now set up 13 small farms across settlements in Nairobi.

Similarly, Hidaya Diapers is providing sustainable and higher income work by employing single mothers in low-income areas. The company aims to improve the health and hygiene of young children and decrease environmental impacts by eliminating waste.

All of SOMO’s 23 person (and growing) team, with the exception of Phillips and one other are Kenyan; and more than half of her team are from the areas SOMO works within. In addition, four of SOMO’s team members are past entrepreneurs who went through SOMO’s training program. “Having our entrepreneurs as team members is really important because they understand our program better than anyone,” said Philips. “We involve the community with everything we do. We are apart of it, not separated from it.”

Recently, SOMO expanded to Kisumu, and Phillips expects to keep expanding.

“Our plan is to expand to Mombasa, a city on Kenya’s eastern coast, and then the goal in the next few years is to go international with our program,” said Phillips, mentioning SOMO’s incipient partnerships with similar organizations in India and Mexico.

What’s Your Big Idea?

Do you have an early-stage, social-impact driven idea? Are you a student looking for the support and resources necessary to solve important issues that matter to your generation?

Only 2 Weeks Left to Apply to the UC BIg Ideas Contest!

By Emily Denny

Do you have an early-stage, social-impact driven idea? Are you a student looking for the support and resources necessary to solve important issues that matter to your generation?

Apply to the Big Ideas Contest by November 20!

Every year the Big Ideas Contest supports aspiring student innovators across the entire University of California system by providing the resources they need to launch, fund and scale their “big idea.” Since its founding in 2006, over 7,000 students have participated, from 100 different majors, collaborating on over 2,400 proposals. Big Ideas has awarded $2.4 million in prizes across over 400 winning teams. These teams have used this modest seed funding — and the targeted mentorship provided by a network of over 1,500+ judges, mentors and sponsors — to collectively secure over $650 million in additional investment.

Students receive extensive feedback from judges, access to skill development workshops and networking opportunities, and are connected with experts for a 6-week mentorship period during the final round. They also have the chance to win up to $20,000 in awards!

So, why should you apply? Our Big Ideas alumni explain it best.

“The Big Ideas process turned our idea into a plan. Big Ideas challenges participants to develop innovative yet feasible solutions to society’s gnarliest issues. Big Ideas has opened doors to additional funding and growth opportunities. ”

Take a risk, and use your skills and passion to solve important social issues!


Apply by November 20th, 12:00 Noon!


Looking for more information? Check out our website for more information on this year’s application requirement and details on how to apply!