First year of Jacobs Fellowship inspired, funded six Penn GSE educational entrepreneurs

August 11, 2023
The six women in the inaugural cohort of Jacobs Fellows stand, smiling, in a classroom in front of a Penn GSE banner.

The inaugural Jacobs Fellows (from left): Heidi Mitchell, top-prize winner Natalia Rodriguez, Sidra Alvi, Neha Gupta, Aqeela Allahyari, and Psacoya Guinn. (Photo by Jane Lindahl)

This spring, the first cohort of Jacobs Education Impact Prize fellows came together in Philadelphia to assess the program and what they learned over the last year.

Part of a larger collaboration between Penn GSE and the Jacobs Foundation, the program offers practical and financial support to a select group of education entrepreneurship master's candidates to develop and launch ventures. It was announced in February 2022.

“Becoming a Jacobs Fellow has been a life-changing experience,” said Natalia Rodriguez, one of the six first-year fellows and the top prize winner. “I had the opportunity to learn from the brightest minds in entrepreneurship and education.”

Over the past year, Rodriguez, Aqeela Allahyari, Sidra Alvi, Psacoya Guinn, Neha Gupta and Heidi Mitchell each received an initial $5,000 in funding, plus coaching from industry experts, professional development opportunities, and access to the global network of Jacobs Fellows who are also working to transform learning through social entrepreneurship.

The ventures evolved significantly throughout the program based on feedback from mentors, other fellows, and market research. Alvi, for example, broadened the partnership plan for her autism-accommodation venture from religious schools to independent schools. Guinn narrowed her focus from creating a school for children experiencing homelessness to developing after-school programs for them.

“My biggest takeaway would be [the importance of] taking risks,” said Allahyari, whose venture evolved from creating a bilingual school in Bahrain to developing an Arabic-language instruction curriculum. After initially doubting her chances, she decided to apply anyway: “I learned to put myself out there.”

For Alvi, a highlight was connecting with community members who share her passions. “The relationships I made during my fellowship are invaluable and will continue to benefit me in the future,” she said.

“This first year was an exciting journey for all of us as education designers, builders, leaders, and learners,” said Jenny Zapf, a senior fellow at Penn GSE and director of the School’s Education Entrepreneurship Program. “Our GSE–Jacobs team … had the unusual opportunity to work hand-in-hand with our fellows and the Jacobs Foundation leadership to create a program from scratch based on learner needs and experience, research, and continuous feedback.”

Though all six of the first fellows will continue to be connected to the program as it welcomes its next cohort, one of them—Rodriguez—was selected for a $15,000 grand prize of “phase two” funding for her project, FAM Academy, an educational platform designed to empower women across Colombia and, eventually, Latin America via fertility education.

Rodriguez said the initial grant was instrumental in helping her create a market-ready product, including FAM Academy’s first digital educational unit. The additional funding will allow her to scale and expand this work.

“It has the potential to be truly life-changing, not only for me but also for the people whose lives we aim to improve through our work,” she said.

Based in Switzerland, the Jacobs Foundation promotes child and youth development and learning worldwide. Founded in Zurich by entrepreneur Klaus J. Jacobs in 1989, the Foundation is currently in the middle of its Strategy 2030, for which it is committing 500 million Swiss francs to advance education over 10 years.

The Jacobs Foundation and Penn GSE will award annual fellowships under the Jacobs Education Impact Prize for the next two years. Applications for the second cohort are open Aug. 15 – Sept. 15, 2023. Learn more on the Jacobs Education Impact Prize page.