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What it takes to win the Dell Social Innovation Competition. Wisdom from past winner, Emma Clippinger.

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The Dell Social Innovation Competition Finals are set for Monday, May 16, and finalists are busy polishing their presentations, hoping to gain that special edge to win over the judges and capture the $50,000 first prize.

2009 winner Emma Clippinger, Executive Director of Gardens for Health Intl, discusses how she experienced this exciting preparation period.

clip_image002“The Dell Social Innovation Competition catalyzed a critical stage in Gardens for Health's development. I will never forget practicing outside of the room where we were to make our finalist presentation. My co-founder, Emily Morell, and I were shaking with a combination of anxiety and caffeine. We had stayed up late into the night refining our presentation. Yet, the anxiety went beyond the immediate of having to stand in front of a panel of incredibly impressive judges.

It was May, 2009 and Emily and I were weeks away from graduating from college. We had poured hours, weeks, days, and personal funds into getting this organization off of the ground. We believed that we were onto something — that it was possible to invest in the agricultural productivity of those who the dual burden of chronic illness and disease — but we were unsure of how long we could sustain it. Emily was set to attend medical school and I had committed to staying with Gardens for Health so long as we could rally the resources, our existing resources left zero space for growth and infinite space for uncertainty.

Passion is a curious force because it is not necessarily something that you can control. For most presentations, I meticulously write out everything that I intend to say and, invariably, end up using very little of my notes. I am most comfortable speaking to what I know, indeed, to that with which I am passionately engaged. I believe that our passion got us through the Dell Social Innovation competition and was, ultimately, responsible for our win.

I encourage this year's finalists to geek out, as I like to say, and own your expertise. When you care about something, you log the hours without even realizing it. You cannot help but google any and all things related to your field, find the seminal books, and seek out the relevant listservs. Never downplay this passion! Moreover, spend some time re-acquainting yourself with why exactly you care this much. The social entrepreneurship seed funder Echoing Green asks its fellows "why do you do what you do" (or, wdydwyd?). The answer need not be technical or philosophical. For me, the answer is simple enough: society fails when a mother cannot feed her child and no one, myself included, can succeed within a society that continues to fail so profoundly. Why do you do what you do?

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I cried when Gardens for Health was announced as the winner of the 2009 Dell Social Innovation Competition. Admittedly, I often cry when individuals (or corporations!) donate to the organization — it is a mixture of immediate and cosmic gratitude, that others are committed to helping to carry out this work, to ensuring that individuals are able to feed themselves and their families in dignity. In Austin that day, I also cried with relief. I suddenly felt that, though our days as student social entrepreneurs were coming to an end, Gardens for Health was just beginning. Indeed, one month later, after I had graduated from college, our Country Director, Julie Carney, and I were named Echoing Green fellows. Gardens for Health had considerable momentum and, while there is never certainty in this work, we were certain that we were moving forward.

As I write this, two years later, I am proud to say that I now serve as Executive Director of the organization. I just returned from Rwanda, where I stayed at our new headquarters, situated on a 3 hectare demonstration and production farm, and visited just some of the hundreds of new families enrolled our programs. Personally, I feel incredibly fortunate, both for Gardens for Health's continued growth and for the incredible community that I have come to know through this work.

With any entrepreneurial endeavor — and especially those that seek a social impact– I believe that it is important to acknowledge the successes and failures of those who have come before you. I have found inspiration and wisdom from veterans in the field as well as from my peers, including other Dell finalists. The Dell Social Innovation Competition is part of powerful new movement that has reenergized a whole new generation around careers in what can broadly be defined as the social sector. Despite our differing strategies, we are all working towards the common goal of eradicating inequity, and that, by itself, is incredibly empowering.

If you’re in Austin, you can attend the final event in person: RSVP here. Tune in May 16th from 6:30-8:30pm for the live webcast of the Dell Social Innovation Competition final event or follow the conversation on Twitter at #DSIC11. We’ll be tweeting live at @DellSocialInnov.

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