When Grace Hanley Wright was a little kid she was seriously concerned about things that most kids her age weren’t concerned with. She researched puppy mills and social injustices while classmates chatted about the ups and downs of middle school life and wrote essays on their favorite sports.
One day in 5th grade, Grace was watching Oprah with her mom. The episode focused on Craig Kielburger who, at the age of 12, founded a youth empowerment organization centered around education, Free the Children. “That showed me that no matter how young you are you can really make a big difference, you can be really powerful,” Grace said.
So she got to work holding coin drives and sharing her mission with people at church, and eventually collected thousands of dollars for the organization, enough to build a school from the ground up.
Finding power: What motivates you?
By the time Grace had gotten to high school that frame had become clearer: She wanted to provide opportunities to those who had few, and help people whose voices had been muted.
Flying to Kenya with Free the Children, she began helping families disentangle their kids from a web of child labor exploitation. Grace worked with the group in Maasai communities, providing educational support, rebuilding schools and teaching students in hopes of staunching the flow of child trafficking and providing families with alternative sources of income.
Coming face to face with the harrowing injustices that women in Kenya faced stirred Grace’s passion to make a difference in their lives, and the lives of people in distressed communities around the world.
After graduating college magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science and government, Grace set about finding a place to put her skills to use, accepting a position at Whole Foods Market. She became involved in the company’s Whole Planet Foundation, which seeks to alleviate poverty by providing microloans, and soon her entire notion of how to approach making a difference in the world had been flipped on its head.
“When I went and I saw those microloans in action, I really realized the power of business to transform lives.”
The idea that major change had to be prescribed through public policy was replaced by a broader perspective. Seeing families pulled from hardship, strengthened through a simple financial tool, made her realize the potential for business mechanisms to empower people and deliver positive social impacts.
A natural fit: How education shapes us
Believing that business could, and should, give back made CSU’s Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA – now the Impact MBA – a natural fit for Grace to learn about the practical realities of entrepreneurship and management.
One of the first lessons Grace learned in the program was that the best business leaders aren’t myopic, climbing a narrow career ladder without anyone’s help, but rather they’re engaged with a growing network of people who are deeply passionate about making the world a better place.
“I think GSSE is kind of a small example of what’s happening all around the United States, and all around the world, where there are business people – and people of all different backgrounds, engineers, chemists – who are trying to figure out: How do we use our skills to help others?”
Equipped with a new mindset to approach sustainable development, Grace and a couple of her classmates traveled to India to conduct their graduate fieldwork with the goal of alleviating the devastation of postpartum hemorrhage, the world’s leading cause of maternal mortality.
The team developed a process and tools that health practitioners could quickly deploy to measure blood loss and provide medication that would hopefully control the bleeding and buy doctors extra time to treat their patients.
However, once the graduate students arrived and began talking with people they soon realized that the problem was different than they first imagined, with women coming into hospitals so anemic that even a little blood loss was incredibly dangerous. Grace and her classmates dropped their original plans and began working to develop a preventative solution.
Together they founded a nonprofit called Ascent, which aims to provide a low-cost and effective iron pill packet to pregnant women that could increase the medication’s consumption by up to 80% and address pitfalls of current products on the market.
After Grace returned to Fort Collins she began working as a graduate assistant at CSU and, shortly after setting up Ascent, a teaching position opened up in the College of Business. Nearly three years later, she is teaching Social and Sustainable Venturing and Introduction to Entrepreneurship as an instructor in the management department, and mentoring students in the program that she graduated from.
“Every day that I go into the classroom I am inspired, and I wake up every day excited to teach, and I leave every day energized because I’m engaging with these people, these students, who are so smart, and they’re driven, and they’re creative,” Grace said.
A place for passion: Finding your home
In her classes Grace brings the same ethical sensibilities and functional lessons that she learned as a graduate student in GSSE.
Although it wasn’t too long ago that she was in their shoes, Grace has seen a dramatic shift in the way students approach their education and professional goals.
The focus has changed from graduates just trying to land a job, to really thinking about finding workplaces and careers that are personally fulfilling.
“Students in the business school now are realizing that they are part of a movement of business leaders who care not just about profit, but also about the environment and about the people that are involved in their business,” Grace said.
“We’re seeing that you can be socially responsible and sustainable and be very profitable at the same time.”
As the co-founder of a nonprofit poised to deliver market-based solutions, Grace is in a unique position to relay the practical realities of entrepreneurship from a firsthand perspective, sharing her challenges and success with students in the college.
“I can really apply my passions to this because Grace has done it, and she tells us about it, and she tells us we can do it,” said Katarina Lincoln, who worked with the instructor as her honors thesis advisor.
With Grace’s help she developed a business plan for a service organization that would help connect retirees with communities around the world in need of volunteers.
Katarina saw how enthusiasm and emotion were important in starting a business, and that energizing yourself and your team through work that you care about is critical. Knowing what she’s looking for in a career and workplace has helped her focus her goals.
“Whether it’s nonprofit or not, if they’ve got a social mission that I can really align with then that’s basically what I’d want to work for,” Katarina said.
“We’re all big dreamers,” said Grace. “My role as an educator is to equip students with the tools to be able to leave CSU and to do something really powerful with their knowledge, with their careers.”
Driven by data: A smarter way forward
There are countless programs around the world hoping to make change, but intention doesn’t equal action. Despite their good intentions, people and organizations can hurt communities and causes by not fully understanding the impact of their programs.
Grace offered charity as an example of where people might go astray by giving goods to a community and not taking a holistic view of their aid. Organizations can inadvertently damage existing markets by ignoring options like improving established supply chains, training people to create the products they need themselves, or setting up an infrastructure that can keep functioning after the donations dry up.
“There’s a really big importance in taking strategies that are based in data, that are community-identified and that are culturally appropriate,” said Grace.
Many of the world’s most complex problems still exist not for lack of awareness or effort, but because only the symptoms are treated. Intricate social issues become tangled with interconnected market forces and become incredibly difficult to address.
“The solutions aren’t easy. It’s going to take collaboration; it’s going to take a lot of creativity; it’s going to take a lot of smart people.”
The students she’s seen enter the college have been coming in with a unique take on how they fit into a global business framework. With access to a vast amount of information online – from expansive social networks spanning continents to cutting edge news and research – expectations on what they’ll be able to do with their degrees have risen.
“To me, the role of an education is to be able to harness those big dreams and teach people how to implement them, how to put them into action in a responsible way, in a data-driven way, in a way that really has a clear strategy.”
“When those students go out,” Grace said, “I know we’ll have a positive future. It’s really exciting.”