When Larry Irvin and Kristyna Jones met at Mardi Gras in 2011, they immediately connected through their shared love of hip-hop and rap. Then the conversation got more personal: Jones gave Irvin her perspective of working in community development in New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina, and Irvin shared his story of growing up as a black man in New Orleans with questions of self-identity.

“Young black men are perpetually trying to figure out who they are supposed to be, because the representations both in our neighborhoods and schools are, a lot of the time, negative,” Irvin says, citing high rates of incarceration and unemployment.

Irvin and Jones came up with a potential solution: getting more black men into the classroom.

“There’s a particular demographic, even within the demographic of black men, who aren’t attached to their academic experience,” says Irvin, 36. “College is something they’re told to do, but not with any purpose behind it.”

Together, Irvin and Jones founded Brothers Empowered to Teach, a nonprofit that urges people of color – particularly black men – to explore careers in education. It seeks to generate a network of teachers who serve as role models for the next generation.

Starting with just seven fellows in 2014, the organization has since grown to have over 40 participants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It has partnered with over 10 schools across New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and four graduates of the program teach in New Orleans public schools.

Irvin himself is a former substitute teacher, a job he held while coaching high school football. He discovered that he had a special connection with many of the kids.

“Having grown up in some of those same neighborhoods that they did, there was a cultural connection,” says Irvin. “It started to seem like I was meant to do this work.”

Larry Irvin of Brothers Empowered to Teach gets a standing ovation at the Austin Creator Awards.

The organization offers two programs for future educators: a one-year program tailored toward college graduates and those changing careers, and a three-year fellowship geared toward current college students. The organization’s teachers get together on Saturdays for professional and personal development workshops.

“We have intimate conversations about things like redefining what masculinity looks like, around male-female gender relationships, and around sexual orientation,” says Irvin. “We’re trying to create a better version of the individual, which in turn turns them into a great educator.”

Brothers Empowered to Teach got a big boost last year at WeWork’s Austin Creator Awards. When it was announced that the organization had won $130,000, Irvin was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,750 people.

A WeWork member, Irvin uses the company’s spaces when he travels, especially to cities like Austin and Washington, D.C.

While Brothers Empowered to Teach has so far worked with only male teachers, the organization recently opened up 30 percent of its seats to women of color.

“It is really beautiful to see our fellows attached to something, approaching education with fervor and excitement,” Irvin says. “We’re trying to change the narrative and reignite a lost reverence for the education profession.”

Artist Olafur Eliasson has mounted exhibits of his large-scale sculptures at galleries and museums around the world, but the piece that might have the most lasting impact is one of the smallest.

Eliasson designed a whimsical solar lamp for Little Sun, the company he founded with engineer Frederik Ottesen in 2012. The for-profit company would sell the lamps in the developed world and use the profits to help distribute them in places where there is little or no electricity, so that school children would have light to do their homework or read in the evenings.

Earlier this year, Eliasson launched the Little Sun Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to vastly increase the number of lamps going to families around the world. The foundation is one of three groups competing this year at the Creator Awards Berlin, a global competition sponsored by WeWork. Nonprofits can win between $18,000 and $130,000.

Little Sun cofounders Frederik Ottesen and Olafur Eliasson with their solar-powered lamp.

By winning at the Creator Awards Berlin, the Little Sun Foundation hopes to distribute solar lamps to 5,000 students and 200 teachers in rural Rwanda. The foundation, based in Berlin, also hopes to raise fund and increase awareness about the need for electricity in developing countries. “We’re interested in implementing technology into a system of communication and engagement,” says director Felix Hallwachs.

Another nonprofit helping kids around the world is Berlin’s ShareTheMeal. Launched with the United Nations World Food Program three years ago, the mobile app fights global hunger by making donating extremely easy. With a simple tap on a smartphone, users can feed one child in need for just 50 cents a day.

“We thought leveraging mobile technology would be a good way to engage millennials, a group that has a heavy smartphone usage,” says Massimiliano Costa, head of ShareTheMeal. He says it’s the “most efficient, innovative, and thought-through fundraising tool to engage millennials in the fight against hunger.”

Kids in Lebanon enjoy some food sponsored by ShareTheMeal.

A win at the Creator Awards would help roll out a new product called The Table, which enables monthly givers to monitor their donations and connect with a family they’re helping through regular updates on the app.

Learning firsthand about the shortcomings of Germany’s education system was what sparked Anna Meister to start ZuBaKa, a program to help refugee children in Frankfurt. The name of the program is a contraction of the German word Zukunftsbaukasten, which roughly translates as “tool box for the future.”

Frankfurt students play in a class led by ZuBaKa.

Having worked with the nonprofit Teach First Deutschland before founding ZuBaKa two years ago, Meister was determined to design a new curriculum that would help young people adjust to school and life in a new country. “We support newcomers between the ages of 10 and 21 by offering customized integration classes at local schools and institutions,” she says.

Meister’s goal is to expand the program beyond the six schools where it is currently based. “It is time for us to get started with our first stage of scaling,” she says. “This is what the Creator Awards would make possible.”

How you drink your morning cup of coffee could one day have a big impact on the world.

Kaffeeform is an eco-friendly replacement for the millions of single-use coffee cups that go into landfills every day. On Nov. 15 the company is competing at WeWork’s Creator Awards Berlin, the latest in a series of global competitions featuring innovative nonprofit organizations and business ventures that are vying for up to $360,000.

Founder and Berlin-based designer Julian Lechner first had the idea for it eight years ago. “It was an idle thought at first,” he says. “What happens to all those spent coffee grounds?”

The grounds are just thrown away, along with all those cups. Lechner began experimenting with coffee waste collected from local cafés until he hit on the perfect combination of coffee grounds and biopolymers, a biodegradable, lightweight, machine washable, and durable material derived from living organisms. “It’s similar to vinyl to touch but with the scent of coffee,” he says.

Berlin-based designer Julian Lechner says he first had the idea for Kaffeeform eight years ago.

The new material can be injection molded to create coffee cups. Kaffeeform currently offers four different types of cups and is preparing to add more products to its list, such as skateboards and sunglasses.

A win at the awards would cap an extraordinary year for Kaffeeform, which recently won the Red Dot Award 2018 for creating a product that “sets an important example for the future.” Lechner’s team is now looking for ways to supply enough cups to meet the ever-growing demand in Germany. “We’re selling them as fast as we can make them, especially the reusable to-go cup,” he says. “Creator Awards funding would allow us to put the right structures in place to get ahead of demand and grow the business sustainably.”

Entrepreneurs look beyond profits

The threat posed by single-use plastics played a role in the genesis of another of the finalists at the Creator Awards. Plan A is the first crowdfunding platform that funnels funds directly to organizations in areas hit hardest by climate change,.

Lubomila Jordanova was determined to get involved in the fight against climate change.

“I’d been on holiday in North Africa and seen mountains of plastic waste being burned in the street,” explains founder Lubomila Jordanova. “I went home determined to get involved in the fight against climate change. I spent weeks plowing through hundreds of articles and still had no idea what I could usefully do. It’s no wonder so many people give up.”

Drawing on her background in finance, the native of Bulgaria realized the problem was one of perspective. “No one can solve climate change because it’s not one problem,” she says. “If we’re going to beat it, we need to do so by breaking it down into thousands of manageable tasks.”

Jordanova, who is based in Berlin, put a team together and spent the next year crunching vast amounts of climate data from around the world. When the platform goes live in a matter of weeks, she says it will be the first time individuals, nonprofits, and businesses will be able to work together on climate change. A win at the Creator Awards would mean more money for marketing and more people analyzing the data.

Amparo cofounder Lucas Paes de Melo (second from right) says the company started as a university project.

The category Lechner and Jordanova are competing in might be called Business Ventures, but all five finalists embody values that go beyond profit and loss. Prosthetics manufacturer Amparo is guided by a mission that is rooted in its origins as a university project, when a group of engineering and design students were looking at ways of helping amputees in the developing world. After two years of research and development, Amparo’s product—a thermoplastic socket that can be remolded as often as necessary, requires no special tools, and can be completed in under an hour at the patient’s home—went on sale in August.

“Traditional sockets have to be remade again and again from scratch as the residual limb changes size and shape, particularly when the amputation is recent, or the amputee is a child,” says cofounder Lucas Paes de Melo. “It’s expensive, time-consuming, and often requires multiple visits to a clinic.”

The socket has an innovative pricing model where people are charged according to their ability to pay. “We haven’t forgotten our original mission to help amputees in the developing world,” he says. Amparo, which means “support” in Portuguese, will dedicate a portion of any money it wins at the Creator Awards towards its dream project: making modern prosthetics accessible to everyone who needs them, regardless of means or geography, via a series of mobile clinics.

On the tip of their tongue

Liz Sauer Williamson’s company is a bit closer to home. Williamson, co-founder of Löwenzahn Organics, wants to improve what we feed our babies. The idea for her company came about when Williamson tasted some of the instant porridge she’d prepared for her infant daughter. It’s no coincidence that one of the company’s first products is a “non-instant” porridge.

Liz Sauer Williamson (right) started Löwenzahn Organics after tasting the porridge she was feeding her baby.

“You actually have to cook it for two minutes rather than simply adding water to rehydrate it,” says the Berlin-based entrepreneur. “The difference in taste is enormous.”

The philosophy behind Löwenzahn Organics is based on the idea that baby food should look and taste like real food. That way, children develop a healthy relationship with eating, and parents don’t spend the next 10 years cooking separate meals for kids and adults. A win at the Creator Awards would mean more money to spend on adding new products to its line of baby foods.

Like the other finalists at the Creator Awards,  David Montiel was inspired by Berlin’s dynamic and inclusive startup scene. Drawn to the city by the prospect of work as a programmer, the native of Mexico wanted to conquer the language as quickly as possible. “I listened to audiobooks on my commute every day and got frustrated having to constantly pause, guess the spelling of each new word, and then look it up in a dictionary,” he says.

David Montiel of Beelinguapp was inspired by Berlin’s dynamic and inclusive startup scene.

Montiel built an app called Beelinguapp that displays text in two languages and offers simultaneous audio, visualized with the bouncing ball familiar to karaoke aficionados. Launched in January 2017, Beelinguapp has attracted 1.5 million users and named one of the top language learning apps Google Play. “That recognition was the assurance I needed to finally leave my day job and commit to Beelinguapp full time,” he says.

Winning a Creator Award would allow him to invest in new features like a bilingual news service. As they prepare for their 60-second pitch at the Creator Awards Berlin, the other finalists echoed the same thought: that a win would enable them to take their business to the next level. And maybe, in the process, change the world.

Imagine that you’ve been working on a nuclear submarine as a member of the U.S. Navy or been leading a platoon of Marines for the past five years. Now it’s time for you to transition back to civilian life. How do you know what you’d like to do? How do your skills translate across industries when your job title, experiences, and responsibilities are largely unseen?

When 250,000 veterans leave the military each year, they’re faced with the challenge of starting over. The military prepares veterans for life—solving challenging problems alongside people from every corner of America—but not necessarily for their next career.

About half of service members leave the military after their initial three-to-five-year commitment. The reasons for doing so mirror those with which people grapple in the modern workforce: Their job is going away. They’re proud of what they’ve done but can’t do it anymore. Or their preferences have changed, and they want to have a bigger impact. In other words, the questions military service members ask themselves are similar to those of someone who is up against automation, is burnt out, or is seeking personal reinvention.

But unlike many job seekers, most soon-to-be veterans have never interviewed for a job or made a resume, and don’t have a professional network. They want to find a path they can commit to but feel a deep sense of anxiety that they are behind their peers, and there’s no foreseeable path to catch up.

These challenges create a frustrating present-day reality: In major metropolitan job markets, 80 percent of veterans leave the military without a job offer. Almost 50 percent of them leave their first post-military job within 12 months. They aren’t finding the right fit.

When I left the military three years ago after serving as a bomb disposal officer, I asked myself similar questions. I didn’t see a clear way into the workforce where opportunities aren’t defined in four-to-five-year pathways. That’s why I decided to start Shift.

At Shift, a career-change company for veterans, I’ve committed my life’s work to this challenge. I now have the answer to the question of how to begin career exploration: with low-risk, high-reward, immersive work experiences.

Earlier this year, Shift partnered with the federal government to allow service members to start working in corporate environments, away from their home base, during their last few months in the military. We called it the Military Fellows Program, because the majority of people leaving the military are experienced professionals with a track record of success.

We focused on industries like media and technology, and in cities like San Francisco and New York, where veterans are frustratingly underrepresented. The fellowship experience allows participants to maximize learning, build on military skills, and develop a valuable professional network in a low-risk environment. Fellows state that they have access to roles—in areas like operations, project management, customer success, and business development—for which they wouldn’t have been considered otherwise, and that a few months of on-site training allows them to significantly increase their value proposition. Perhaps most importantly, the program gives people leaving the military the conviction they need to pursue non-traditional pathways.

The result: Three months of on-the-job training results in an offer of full-time employment 85 percent of the time.  

With a quarter of a million new professionals entering the workforce from the military each year, every company would benefit from a strategy around veteran recruiting. Compared to decoding unknown experiences and guessing about ideal fit, this approach is a radically different way for employers to assess and acquire talent from non-traditional backgrounds. Experiences like these could extend beyond the military to other affinity groups—like mothers returning to the workforce—seeking to change careers.

It’s time to create our vision of the future of work. Technology is transforming which jobs are being performed by humans and those that are not. If known pathways existed between industries that look different from each other, people would explore new careers more often. We’d be one step closer to a future where workers get credit for past experiences and can reinvent themselves when they’re ready for new challenges.

Being an active member of the military teaches you a lot: how to work with a team, how to think differently, how to persevere in the face of adversity. Those are all crucial skills to serve and protect—but also excellent traits for people who want to start their own businesses. And that’s exactly how women are channeling their military prowess once they re-enter civilian life.

Take Lindsey Church, a member at Seattle’s WeWork 500 Yale Ave. N. and former Navy linguist. She founded Minority Veterans of America, which serves underrepresented veterans across the country. “As a female veteran, I almost never saw female veterans,” she says. “As a gender-nonconforming veteran, I felt like the only one in the room. And I realized, within the veteran community, I saw no people of color, no religious minorities. But I got so sick of complaining about it; I just wanted to do something about it.”

“We’ve been here all along but we’re starting to be welcomed to the table,” says Lindsey Church of Minority Veterans of America.

At WeWork, nearly 30 percent of the national Veterans in Residence program—a partnership with Bunker Labs, a nonprofit that helps veterans start their own businesses—are female entrepreneurs, almost double the number of women recruits in the military (women represent about 16 percent of the armed forces).

And while veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans regardless of gender, according to the U.S. Small Business Association, business is especially booming for women: Between 2007 and 2012, according to preliminary data from the Survey of Business Owners, the number of businesses owned by female veterans more than tripled, to 384,574 businesses from 130,000—more than any other population segment.

Redefining what it means to be a veteran

Church’s organization has grown to 600 members and 4,000-plus Facebook followers in a year, with representatives in Seattle (Church’s home base); Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles; Chicago; Colorado Springs; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere. They’re working to give all minority veterans a voice, create an inclusive community, and eliminate the stereotype of what a veteran looks like. That transition, thanks to entrepreneurs like Church, is already starting to happen.

“For a long time, the narrative has been that veterans are straight, white, Christian men,” she says. “But as more women join the military—and more become vets—there’s more recognition happening for female veterans. We’ve been here all along but we’re starting to be welcomed to the table, which is changing what we’re capable of doing.”  

And they’re certainly capable. Thirty-three percent of veteran entrepreneurs report having gained skills from active-duty service that are relevant to business ownership, including leadership, teamwork, project management, and focus, according to data from the Veterans in Residence program.

“I’ve had multiple corporate experiences and management jobs where I was often underutilized in order to fit the job description,” says Shelly Rood of Missilia.

“As a military veteran, I’m highly capable in so many ways—but I’ve had multiple corporate experiences and management jobs where I was often underutilized in order to fit the job description,” says Shelly Rood, a former Army all-source tactical-intelligence officer. A member at Detroit’s WeWork Campus Martius in Detroit, she created Missilia, a community for “women who kick butt.” She’s not alone—only 37 percent of female respondents to a survey by veteran nonprofit The Mission Continues said they feel “recognized, respected, and valued as veterans in civilian life.”

Rood’s organization is all about recognizing the value of strong women. Her professional speaking engagements attracted female veterans, firefighters, police, and business owners. “They were looking for a community of like-minded women, so that’s what I decided to create,” she says. Missilia celebrates the stories of extraordinary women in part with a $30 monthly subscription box that contains natural beauty products, healthy snacks, and a “tactical piece” like pepper spray, a pocket knife, or a pen that doubles as a self-defense tool. “The box was created to help reinforce what it means to be a strong woman and take care of yourself month after month,” says Rood.

Breaking new ground in the civilian world

There’s another reason female veterans are turning to entrepreneurship: There aren’t jobs available—or, rather, there aren’t jobs that they want. The overall female-veteran-unemployment rate increased to 3 percent in October 2018 from 2.1 percent from October 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, while the unemployment rate for male veterans did not change significantly.

Moreover, the Veterans in Residence program found that only 33 percent of members had a clear sense of what they wanted to do professionally after their military careers. For Dajon Ferrell, a member at Minneapolis’s WeWork Capella Tower who previously worked in the Army’s division of public affairs and marketing, it was about creating a job that ignited the same kind of passion as her military service.

“When you get out of the military, it’s hard to just go into a daily-grind mode,” says Dajon Ferrell of the Mindful Warriors podcast. “You really seek that challenge and a way to still be of service.”

“I thought the military was going to be a career for me,” she says. “When I got out and looked at what people my age were doing—that 9-to-5 life—I thought, ‘OK, so I’m going to make X amount, not really feel like I have much control over my time, and not really feel like I have a purpose? No, thanks, I’ll do it on my own.’”

Ferrell branded herself as the Mindful Veteran, an empowerment coach working with veterans or civilians who have PTSD, anxiety, depression, or who have experienced sexual trauma. On her Mindful Warriors podcast, she aims to bridge the gap between civilians and the military by featuring resources, organizations, and opportunities. “When you get out of the military, it’s hard to just go into a daily-grind mode,” she says. “You really seek that challenge and a way to still be of service.”

The armed forces as business school 101

Veterans are uniquely positioned to share their expertise in service because the military provides an intense environment for learning skills they don’t teach you in business school, from compassion and tenacity to resilience and problem-solving under life-or-death conditions. And it’s that dedication and perseverance that makes female vets successful entrepreneurs.

“I almost died in the military, and I fought tooth and nail to come out of that place,” says Church. “You want to tell me no? Bring it on. I’ve dealt with worse.”

The high-stakes nature of military jobs also makes entrepreneurial risks less scary than they might be for civilians. “In the military, you’re entrusted with high-risk, high-stakes situations and told, ‘Figure it out,’” says Rood. “And they won’t accept excuses. You have to think outside the box.”

And that’s what Ferrell wanted to do after leaving the military as well. “You come to the civilian world and you just naturally have the ability to go out and make shit happen,” she says. That’s what sets female-veteran entrepreneurs apart. “The female veterans that I’ve met all have this common understanding that nobody else is going to do it, and we’re all ready to step up,” Church says. “Women are ready to rise to the challenge.”