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Harnessing Energy, Collaboration, and Connections: A Week at the Upswell Forum

By: Winnie Karanja 22 Jan 2024

Winnie Karanja, Founder & CEO of Nakira's World

On a typical Tuesday morning, I logged into LinkedIn and saw that a colleague had tagged me on a post, noting that I’d be a great candidate for a new program for social entrepreneurs called the Upswell Forum at Harvard Business School. I was intrigued.

At the time, I was actively looking for a social entrepreneur ecosystem to join and learn from, as my company was in the process of moving from start-up to growth phase.

I am the Founder & CEO of Nakira’s World, an educational company focused on fostering early STEM learning, through a collection of educational products, animation and curriculum.

I was particularly drawn to Upswell because it emphasized bringing together social entrepreneurs that serve communities of color. The program aimed to equip us with essential tools for organizational growth while fostering peer support rooted in the diverse identities of the cohort members.

I arrived in Cambridge on a warm fall Monday afternoon and was met with the joyous team at HBS Social Enterprise Initiative as I walked into the building. The world class professors who were waiting eagerly to see  Upswell become a reality.

In the classroom, we were assigned to tables with social entrepreneurs from various sectors and geographical regions. As we started to introduce ourselves through sharing our life paths, an exercise we had written prior to arriving, we connected on the similarities and differences in our stories, and saw how pivotal or subtle moments in our lives had led us to our current work.

What proceeded in the coming few days, can only be described as the combination of intentionality, curiosity and harmony. From the get go, our professors were down to earth and took the floor bringing the case studies to life by ushering us into exploring the dynamics within the cases, and as each person offered insight, the follow up questions would unveil another level of critical thinking and understanding. This classroom dynamic and facilitation was the cornerstone of where our thoughts and perspectives were awakened to the ways we led, the systems at our organizations and how that thinking or practice came to take shape and what it means.

One of the most valuable experiences for me were the conversations about Nakira’s World with the colleagues at my table. I brought my questions and assumptions about customer persona, business model and scaling and they interrogated my business in a way that I hadn’t before. I realized that I had a customer base that I had never engaged with and began thinking through what this would look like in the growth phase, alongside refining my understanding of our current customers. In addition to their questions, the ways in which my cohort members saw the impact of Nakira’s World in exposing students of color to STEM was affirming. There was no shortage of energy, collaboration and facilitation of connections to support each other's mission and growth.

Our live case studies and fireside chats with seasoned and expert leaders were a reminder of the commonality of experiences, questions and goals. There were reminders of the power of our stories, the expertise we bring, the importance of taking care of ourselves.

The Upswell Forum was an invaluable experience to gain new skills and to have a network of leaders who get the challenges and rewards (both personally and professionally) and are rooting for you. For those who are considering bringing your team to the Upswell Forum, without hesitation do it, and ensure you bring decision makers at the organization and allow them to do the pre-work and case studies before arriving on campus.