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A Joyful Transformation


Conway Center’s inaugural Co-Innovate for Change Challenge inspires inventive solutions to real-world issues

All photos by Shana Sureck


Published April 17, 2024

On April 12, the Julia McWilliams Child ’34 Campus Center was buzzing with creativity, inspiration, a touch of genius, and a whole lot of joy. Smith students stepped up to participate in the first-ever Co-Innovate for Change Challenge, sponsored by the Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. Student teams presented project proposals—in various phases of development—that solved real-world issues with inventive solutions. Joy was the theme for this year’s challenge, which turned into a full day of celebration and sharing ideas for social change. From the start, the event was one big JOYpalooza, as organizers dubbed the day.

At the urging of students, this year’s challenge went beyond celebrating innovation and investing in new businesses to embracing a broader idea of caring for the planet and one another. “Our aim was to shift the spotlight from investors to the students themselves as creators,” says René Heavlow AC ’08, director of operations and special programs at the Conway Center and chair of the Challenge planning committee. “Their projects aren’t only venture-focused, making room for social impact and research-focused projects as well.”

Students formed teams to submit project proposals, with each team representing at least two different majors. Projects ran the gamut, from raising oysters for cleaner community water to helping young single mothers in Cameroon overcome social stigmas. The projects had to address at least one United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG), also known as Global Goals, which were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the Earth, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

The day itself was jam-packed with all sorts of fun events, which kicked off with Smith’s dining services staff competing in a Cooking for Joy Culinary Innovators Challenge, with cook’s assistant Julian Martineau taking first place for his five-spice sous vide duck breast with blueberry compote. Other activities included crafts and dance sessions complete with a penny candy and iced coffee bar. Music was provided by DJ Madeline Richard ’26, who served up an upbeat, eclectic playlist she created with Ronny Murray ’26. The JOYcase in the middle of the day provided the perfect opportunity for student teams to showcase their projects and answer questions from students, staff, and faculty. Later in the day, the student teams delivered four-minute TEDx-style talks before winners in various categories were announced by a panel of 20 faculty and staff judges. At stake was a total of $50,000 in prize money. “The culminating event is not just about the monetary award pool, it’s about the recognition of students’ discovery and learning over the course of the experience,” says Andrea St. Louis, Ann Kaplan ’67 Director of the Conway Center. “This is an opportunity to allow students to intentionally consider what it takes for their ideas and projects to be made real in the world, while recognizing that it’s not only the destination that matters, but the journey as well.”

Four Smith chefs hold plates of food.

The Culinary Innovators Challenge featuring Smith dining. From left to right: Anaila Aleman, floater utility assistant; German Alvarado, director of culinary services; Julian Martineau, cook’s assistant; and David Dejordy, Campus Center Cafe retail chef.

Students enjoy a candy bar

What is more joyful than a penny candy bar? 

Juliana Kudzai Makonise ’25 was part of the Friends Beyond Borders team that proposed providing young refugees with college application support and career guidance. “As a Zimbabwean native, I have a diverse pool of friends hailing from different parts of the world,” says Makonise, an economics major. “Those who have settled in U.S. territories have expressed great need for more extensive support in helping them transition into the higher education system and advance their academic goals.” Makonise and team member Joanne Lee ’27 plan to start Friends Beyond Borders as a student organization at Smith. “The Joy Challenge has helped us ideate solutions to a complex refugee need through a joyful and empathetic lens,” Makonise says. “We are confident we will help make a positive impact in the lives of refugees locally and globally.”

Two students discuss their project

Event goers talk to Juliana Kudzai Makonise ’25 and Joanne Lee ’27 about Friends Beyond Borders, which proposes college application assistance to refugees.

Bernice Agyeiwaa ’27 and Pokuaa Adwoa Boakye are the brains behind EqualSteps, which seeks to provide disabled children in Ghana with assistive devices such as prosthetics, thus empowering them in every facet of their lives. “Looking back at our personal experience with disability and the impact it had on not just the immediate persons but the entire people surrounding them fuel a spirit in us to help those in need whenever we are in the position to do so,” says Agyeiwaa. “Looking at the challenge theme of joy, we were inspired to bring joy to those afflicted.” In a successful pilot program, EqualSteps has already provided a prosthetic limb for a 6-year-old boy in Kumasi who became an amputee due to complications from childbirth.

Two students talk about their projects

EqualSteps team members Bernice Agyeiwaa ’27 and Pokuaa Adwoa Boakye ’27 share their commitment to help disabled children in Ghana.

Chaira Harder ’25, Abigail Fletcher ’24, Sirohi Kumar ’26, Sarah Mian ’26, and Lala Rukh ’25 scored a TKO with PYXBoxing, which plans to create boxing gloves and other gear specifically for women to encourage more to women to take up the sport and reduce injuries from ill-fitting equipment. Harder came up with PYXBoxing after being frustrated when she started boxing in high school, but couldn’t find properly fitting gloves.

A highlight of this year’s challenge was the collaborative spirit that fueled each team. “We’ve learned how effective teamwork can be when there is clear communication and everyone’s roles are clearly defined with reasonably delegated tasks,” says Harder.

Agyeiwaa appreciates the Conway Center’s reimagined focus and the chance to make a difference in the wider world. “It has been a wonderful experience as we have connected with great people,” she says. “This will not only help with the success of our project but also with our interpersonal relationships. We really appreciate the opportunity the Conway Center has given us. It has been a stepping stone for the impact we want to make!”

Three students hold up boxing gloves to the camera

PYXBoxing wants to ensure women have the right equipment. The team includes Chiara Harder ’25, Abigail Fletcher ’24, Sirohi Kumar ’26, Sarah Mian ’26, and Lala Rukh ’25.

The Day’s Big Winners

People’s Choice Winner: $1,000 each

  1. Trade Trade Board: Offer or request a service by posting a note on an old-school poster board.
    Malika Gottfried ’25, Ariel Benjamin ’25, Matilda Boal ’25
  2. PYX Boxing: Boxing equipment for women
    Chaira Harder ’25, Abigail Fletcher ’24, Sirohi Kumar ’26, Sarah Mian ’26, and Lala Rukh ’25

Judges Choice Award: $5,000 each

  1. Building Benches and Community: Accessible outdoor seating
    Emma Merchant ’24, Abigail Fizer ’25, Emily Swindell ’24
  2. Mini FLUPSY: Cleaning local water systems via raising oysters at home
    Lu Brownstein ’24, Sarah Kam ’24, Leah Marville ’24

Honorable Mention: $10,000

The Joy Incubator for Women: Helping single young mothers in Cameroon
Britney Sandra Akwan ’27, Glory Divine Yougang Tahon ’26

Runner-up: $15,000

Friends Beyond Borders: Guiding refugees through the college application process
Juliana Makonise ’25, Joanne Lee ’27

Best in Show: $20,000

Mowana: Supporting African students in higher education and career decisions
Tridia Kabila ’26, Eugenia Rogers ’25