Reporting on the ongoing civil war that had spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, René Cao says she witnessed suffering on a scale unlike anything she’d ever seen before. But despite the hardships she encountered in war zones and refugee camps, she found herself inspired by the selflessness of the people she encountered.

The former reporter for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network now works for a bitcoin exchange based out of Shanghai’s WeWork Financial Center. But the Chinese citizen has never forgotten the people she met when she was on assignment in Lebanon in 2011.

“The people I met really shaped my values,” says Cao. “They have driven me to do something for someone else, not just care about myself. As a journalist, I thought I could use my skills to tell their stories and share them with the world. I knew their voices needed to be heard.”

Her determination to help the displaced people in the Middle East led her to found the Ponybaby Project, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for the education of refugee children.

In 2014, she decided to return to Lebanon to document the lives of young people there. Finding a videographer was tough — her first one dropped out after a terrorist attack in Paris — but her editor connected her to Olmo Reverter. Together Cao and Reverter made a documentary called The Hard Stop: The Plight of Syrian Refugee Children, which reached more than 10 million viewers in China alone.

“Flying over with Olmo and shooting that first documentary was really a turning point in my life,” says Cao, who is 30. “I had no idea at the time that I was going to carry on with this project. What I really wanted to do was tell their stories.”

Within a year the team had officially set up the Ponybaby Project. Cao and her partners tell moving stories through articles, documentaries, and photo exhibitions. In honor of World Refugee Day, she and her team hosted a panel discussion on the crisis in Syria at WeWork Shanghai Finance Center.

Cao says the name was inspired by a verse in a famous Chinese poem, which loosely translates to: “Take your dream as a horse, act your glorious youth.”

The Ponybaby Project partnered with Pear Video, one of China’s leading video platforms, to broadcast its Orphans of the World series. It recently embarked on a new series called Their Responses that follows more than a dozen Syrian refugees living across the Middle East. The Ponybaby Project also teamed up with Tencent Charity, one of the leading fundraising platforms in China, to help raise money to help refugees directly.

Niu Song, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, likes the “community spirit” displayed by the Ponybaby Project team.

“I believe that the stories and documentaries displayed by Ponybaby Project, as first-hand information, can honestly uncover the real status of the refugees, including their basic life, children’s education, job employment, and willingness to return to their home country,” says Song, who was among the speakers at the panel discussion.

All of the funds raised by the Ponybaby Project go towards scholarships for families living in refugee camps who can’t afford their children’s school fees, materials, and books.

“Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees are in debt,” says Lisa Abou Khaled, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Parents are having to resort to difficult choices like pulling their children out of school and sending them to work because they can’t afford to feed the family anymore.”

Since Cao’s first visit to the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has claimed the lives of 70,000 civilians and displaced 5 million others. Despite the scale of trauma, Cao says the refugee crisis is rarely discussed in her native China. But that’s part of the goal—to start the conversation by bringing the personal stories of refugees to households across the country.

“Many people don’t have a chance to talk with refugees, so they have a very unclear concept of who they are,” says Cao. “They’re often treated like wild animals, vulnerable and unpredictable. But they want to live with respect and dignity, just like everyone else.”

Photo by Nicholas Tortajada

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.”

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.