“What are you gonna do after college?” asked the executive director of the nonprofit where Kaneisha Grayson was volunteering the summer before her senior year.

The black studies major mentioned her one-year scholarship in Africa, but after that? Her future was wide open. That’s when Grayson was told she had a “keen business sense” and should consider going to school for it.

“I literally Googled ‘What is business school?’” recalls Grayson, now 32 years old, from her workspace in Austin’s WeWork University Park.

Harvard Business School’s website instantly popped up, asking all of the right questions.

Do you want a transformative experience? “Yes!” thought Grayson.

From Googling ‘What Is Business School’ to Teaching the Art of Applying2

Do you want to be in class with the world’s leaders? “Yes, I do!” she agreed again.

Grayson was ready for the new challenge, despite lacking considerable experience in the business world. The “closest thing”?

“I was a scanning person at the grocery store, and I was the popcorn person at the movies,” says Grayson. “And I worked at Sylvan Learning center filing papers in high school. But I just had that entrepreneurial drive. I was like, ‘If I’m gonna go to business school, I want to go to the best business school.’”

Which she did. And after helping many prospective students for free—answering questions about applying to Harvard—a friend commented, “That is a business. You need to do it as a business.”

During the last few weeks of graduate school, in 2010, Grayson submitted a business plan to Harvard’s entrepreneurship center. She was given the green light and awarded $10,000 to start The Art of Applying, as well as a Kickstarter for her self-help books. “I am a writer who’s not currently writing, but it’s not abandoned,” she stresses.

From Googling ‘What Is Business School’ to Teaching the Art of Applying4

At The Art of Applying, Grayson and her team of consultants help people from all over the world apply to Ivy League policy schools, business schools, and law schools.

“Our biggest win in hiring was getting Judy Kugel,” Grayson says. “She worked at Harvard for 33 years, and she was on the admissions committee at Harvard for 25 years.”

This year, they’ve extended their counsel to include helping high school students apply to college, as well as career coaching.

How does The Art of Applying “help prepare the next generation of the world’s leaders” exactly?

“One of the ways is just helping them feel like this is something that they can do,” Grayson says. “Like, look at me. I don’t look like the people you see on Wolf of Wall Street or whatever. So you can do it, too.”

From Googling ‘What Is Business School’ to Teaching the Art of Applying3

Another crucial part of Grayson’s job is encouraging people, especially women, to aim for the stars.

“A big part of my job is helping people admit that they want to be rich and/or powerful,” Grayson says. “I feel like a huge part of my job is to get people to admit what they really want to do, but A) not being judgmental, but also just letting them know: you are applying to Harvard. These are the most ambitious, driven people. So this is not the time to be shy.”

Grayson is proud of pushing herself to receive both a business degree from HBS and a public administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School. But what she regrets is the “huge burden” she accumulated in student loans—“Debt is detrimental to artists,” she says.

Since its inception, The Art of Applying has advised hundreds of students—that means a combined millions of dollars awarded in fellowships. Sure, sometimes clients aren’t awarded any money. But sometimes, they get $10,000 or $20,000. And often, clients will announce they got “three full rides”: Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton.

“It is like my redemption,” Grayson says, “or my amends to myself—to help people understand the gravity and the seriousness of student loans and take on as little as possible.”

Photos: Adam Saraceno

Last week, a historic number of women were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. But it’s not those headline-making victories—like that of Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress—that Erin Vilardi, the founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, a nonprofit that trains women to run for office, is most proud of. It’s the smaller campaigns that brought change on a local level.

“There were these stories about women ousting people who were highly discriminatory, and it’s so inspiring,” she says. One such story happened in-house: VoteRunLead’s national training director, Faith Winter, is a Colorado state representative-elect who ran against her alleged harasser––who himself faced accusations from 11 other women. “She ended up running for his seat [in the Colorado state legislature] and replaced him,” says Vilardi.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (right) speaks at the Women & Power 2018 conference at WeWork Times Square.

That’s exactly the kind of movement Vilardi hoped VoteRunLead would spark. Her history with the organization goes back to 2004 when she helped found it as part of The White House Project, which worked to increase female representation in institutions, businesses, and government. When that shuttered in 2014, Vilardi turned VoteRunLead into a standalone organization. Since then, she’s helped more than 33,000 women run for office and is planning to train another 30,000 women by 2020.

Unlike other organizations that help raise money for or mobilize volunteers around candidates, VoteRunLead is all about providing the how to women who want to run. Via a training methodology called Run As You Are, the group teaches women the hard skills around campaigning, fundraising, and building a team. “We believe that women have the skills and talents already to run––we just help transfer them into the political realm,” Vilardi says. “They’re learning how to craft a narrative, how to deal with sexism and harassment, and all these practical actions that speed up your political literacy.”

Ilhan Omar, a Muslim women recently elected to Congress, speaks at a VoteRunLead event.

Part of that training is one- and three-day in-person training sessions at WeWork locations across the country (Vilardi and her staff of six are based in WeWork Harlem); since the 2016 election, Vote Run Lead has been active in 25 cities. The organization plans to expand to 14 WeWork cities next year.

In 2018, 80 percent of VoteRunLead alumni advanced in the primaries, and 50 percent went on to win. On Nov. 12, Vilardi celebrated those wins at VoteRunLead’s Women & Power 2018 conference at WeWork Times Square in New York. “We really see this as just the beginning of women claiming their roles in government,” she says.

Women from all over the country attended what Vilardi deemed “Radical Conversations With Barrier-Breaking Women,” including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose name has been floated as a possible 2020 presidential candidate; one of Glamour’s College Women of the Year, who is planning a campaign for school board; and Lauren Underwood, the 32-year-old congresswoman-elect from Illinois and the youngest African-American woman to serve in Congress (and the first VoteRunLead alumna to be elected to Congress).

Underwood and Ilhan Omar both attended VoteRunLead trainings. Ilhan did so beginning in 2014 and became a certified VoteRunLead trainer, then won her seat in the state before running for Congress. Underwood attended the Minneapolis training in 2017; during her campaign, her staff viewed VoteRunLead video resources.

As high-profile as the congressional campaigns of those women were, VoteRunLead also helped train Gerri Cannon, one of three transgender elected state representatives; Kim Norton, the first female mayor of Rochester, Minnesota; and Brenda Lopez, the first Latina elected to the Georgia State Assembly. “We really specialize in local and state offices,” says Vilardi. “And we’re nonpartisan—we’re not going to turn a woman away who wants to get a political education.”

In fact, the organization is turning its focus to local elections, like the 19,000 school-board seats that are up in 2019, and building their state-representative benches. “There are only so many hundreds of federal seats,” says Vilardi. “But there are 519,682 other seats across the country.”

For now, VoteRunLead is riding the wave of positivity that came from the recent elections. “I really think people felt really positive about seeing these local wins for women, that it wasn’t just this national handful of women,” says Vilardi. “There’s a wave of diverse women underneath them coming up and running locally. Everyone keeps calling it an ocean, an ocean of women that’s ready to keep going and keep running.”

Erin Geiger Smith contributed to this report.

The judges at WeWork’s Creator Awards Berlin had a tough time deciding which of the five startups competing in the Business Venture category would go home with the top prize. All five delivered persuasive pitches explaining why their mission-driven companies deserved to win.

In the end, the judges split the difference, handing out prizes to three companies. Lucas Paes de Melo of Amparo, which makes affordable prosthetic devices available to amputees around the world, accepted the top prize of the night, taking home a whopping €318,000 (about $362,000). “With the funds from the Creators Award,” he told the crowd of 2,493 people, “we’ll get closer to our vision of building our clinics and increasing access to prosthetics in every corner of the planet.”  

Meetup’s Togetherfest hosted a variety of sessions for people to connect to each other, including eye-contact experiments.

Beelinguapp, a language-learning app that garnered 1.5 million users in its first six months, received €158,000 (about $180,000). And the climate change crowdfunding platform Plan A walked away with €62,000 (about $70,000).

Held in a massive industrial building along the Spree River, the Creator Awards Berlin awarded a total of more than €600,000 ($685,000) in prize money. Since the Creator Awards was started in 2017, WeWork has given away millions in funding to more than 200 winners.

Business Venture finalist Liz Sauer Williamson explains how she started Löwenzahn Organics.

This is the second time the Creator Awards has been held in the German capital. The Berlin edition marks the eighth and final stop this year for the Creator Awards until the Global Finals, which will take place in Los Angeles in January.

After the crowd watched inspirational videos about the three Nonprofit finalists, host Adi Neumann announced that none of them would be going home empty-handed. The top prize of €60,000 ($68,000) went to Felix Hallwachs and Eva Brandt of the Little Sun Foundation, which delivers solar lamps to remote places with little or no electricity. When asked about what the funding will be used for, Hallwachs said that about 2,500 kids and 13,000 of their family members would receive access to the lamps, “making learning easier and their nights a little brighter.”

Lucas Paes de Melo of the prosthetics company Amparo celebrates his big win at the Creator Awards Berlin.

Two other nonprofit organizations, ShareTheMeal, an app that makes it easy to sponsor meals for children in need, and ZuBaKa, which helps refugee students in Germany, both took home €15,000 ($17,000).

In the lead-up to the awards ceremony, Meetup’s Togetherfest hosted a variety of sessions for people to connect to each other, including book swaps, portrait drawing, and even eye-contact experiments. The latter activity encouraged people to share one minute of eye contact with a stranger while sitting across from one another on comfortable pillows.

DJ Mark Ronson gets the crowd moving at the Creator Awards Berlin.

At the pop-up market and job fair that took place before the awards, attendees were treated to swag and face-to-face chats with companies that are hiring like Moo, Homify, and Airbnb.

The awards ceremony started off with a brass ensemble called the No Limit Street Band playing lively renditions of tunes like Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” But it wasn’t until they played the nineties hit “Stop” by the Spice Girls that the audience really let loose.

The evening also ended with music as the Grammy award-winning artist Mark Ronson, a musician, DJ, and record producer for singers like Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Lady Gaga, spun a set. Not for the first time that evening, the crowd was on its feet.

Back when he helped organize festivals like Burning Man, Sebastian Jünemann says his team could “build a city somewhere in the middle of nowhere for 50,000 to 70,000 people.”

That experience led him and six other people to found Cadus, a nonprofit that constructs mobile hospitals in the world’s most extreme and difficult conditions, from the frontlines of war zones to the epicenters of natural disasters. Jünemann says he wanted to bring the spirit of those big communal gatherings into humanitarian aid.

Bringing access to medical care to people in need since 2014, Cadus impressed the judges at WeWork’s Creator Awards Berlin 2017, where the organization won $130,000. Early this year, it took home another $500,000 at the Creator Awards Global Finals in New York.

Jünemann returns to the Creator Awards Berlin this week to talk about the organization’s mission. “Our main project,” he explains, “is an emergency response unit that will bring medical and technical help to the people who need it most.”

In the Cadus workshop space, volunteers and staff assemble components
to outfit a mobile hospital vehicle.

Jünemann’s team of 10 full-time staffers adds as many as 40 volunteers depending on need, funding cycles, and the types of projects available. Jünemann, a member at Berlin’s WeWork Stresemannstrasse 123, says he’s “never felt such support.”

In the nonprofit’s dedicated workshop space in Berlin, Cadus builds everything a medical team might need in a crisis area. The focus is on keeping everything affordable and easily repairable. All their innovations are open-source, so they are available to other nonprofits doing similar work.

“Our aim is to develop a blueprint for mobile hospitals for small, medium, and large nonprofits in poor countries,” Jünemann says.

Treating ‘as many people as possible’

Shortly after the organization’s first mission—rushing to the scene after the Philippines was hit in 2013 by one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, Super Typhoon Yolanda—the Cadus team was asked to join a group of journalists covering a war zone in Syria. Since then, Cadus has deployed in places like Iraq and Yemen—precarious zones to which many aid organizations don’t travel. “We’ve become specialists in dirty situations,” Jünemann says.

Besides working with people whose lives have been torn apart by war, Cadus also focuses on the international refugee crisis. Their work has become more difficult as many European countries close their borders.

“A few years ago, most European states were more open than they are today,” Jünemann says. “There are a lot of efforts to close down the refugee routes, which forces the refugees to find alternatives, which are often more dangerous. That means we have to be much more mobile.”

A paramedic since 1997, Jünemann says that funding is hard to come by for a relief organization like Cadus. That’s why the continued support from WeWork has been so important.

“We equipped our emergency response unit with [the Creator Awards] money,” Jünemann says. “Before, we didn’t have any resources money-wise, so we had to ask for private donations or official funding before starting a new operation. Now, we’re ready to deploy immediately after we’ve identified a crisis.”

Cadus is currently at work in Syria and is soon starting a new project in Bosnia. It’s also implementing a new airdrop system to deliver payloads from small planes that will be deployed in Nepal before the end of the year.

“The problem after disasters is that there are not enough specialized pilots for longline operations,” Jünemann says. “With our system, it is possible to drop into these locations.”

When asked about his organization’s overarching goal, Jünemann has a simple response: to save lives.

“What we are doing is basic emergency response and basic life support,” he says. “We are going there when no one else is. If I had to name a goal, I’d say it is to treat as many people as possible.”

An investor in companies like Airnbnb, Spotify, Uber, and Warby Parker, Ashton Kutcher knows a thing or two about what kind of companies are going to be successful.

“The bottom line is it’s not just about creating a company that has numbers and revenue and is going to make money,” says the actor, producer, and entrepreneur. “It’s about a company that is going to change the world, a company that is going to change people’s lives and make a really big impact.”

Kutcher has been a judge and co-host at several of WeWork’s Creator Awards, a global competition that provides funding for some of the world’s most innovative business ventures and nonprofit organizations. After hitting seven cities so far this year, it returns this week to Berlin before heading to Los Angeles in January for the Global Finals.

Tim Ferris (seen here with fellow Creator Awards judges Tamara Steffens, Lisa Price, and Joy Mangano) says that he’s looking for companies that are mission driven.

When Kutcher is listening to founders pitch their ideas, one thing that catches his attention is tenacity.

“I am looking for a spark that shows me that the founder that has grit,” he explains. “Starting a business is hard, and you are going to come across obstacles. The people who have grit actually make it through.”

Several other judges at Creator Awards shows break down what they are looking for into a couple of different categories: Is there a well-thought-out business plan? Is the idea behind the company original? And is there a strong social good aspect?

“I’m looking at them as if they are applying for funding,” says Justine Powell, managing director at Berlin’s Handelsblatt Media Group, who will be among the judges at this week’s Creator Awards Berlin. “I’m considering whether their organization really is viable. My biggest concern is startups that are too reliant on funding. That’s not the way to run a business. They have to show that there’s a market out there.”

Although this is the first time Powell is judging a pitch competition, she has had plenty of experience with startups. Mentoring founders, she says, “is part of the job.”

“Another thing I’m going to be looking is whether something is really is a completely new idea,” says Powell. “How original it is?”

Mobile bank Monzo cofounder Jonas Templestein, a judge at the Creator Awards London, agrees that originality is one of the most important things.

“What I am looking for is defensibility,” he says, “businesses that are difficult to attack and hard to copy.”

Author, entrepreneur, and public speaker Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, was a judge at last year’s Creator Awards Global Finals in New York. He says that he’s looking for companies that are mission driven.

“Will this change lives or not?” he asks. “Not just improve things incrementally, but will this change lives or not? Yes or no? And on a scale of one to 10, what would that look like? And then, how many people will that impact?”

Michelle Kennedy, cofounder of the motherhood app Peanut, says the companies most likely to win funding are ones that inspire her.

“I’m going to be looking for a business that turns me into their biggest cheerleader,” says Kennedy, who was a judge at the Creator Awards London.

Kutcher concurs, saying that putting money into a company is a long-term commitment.

“I’m looking for an entrepreneur that I would want to work for, because I think that as an investor you end up working for every investment that you make,” he says. “So I am looking for people I want to work for and an idea that has the capacity to really impact people’s lives.”