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This year’s cohort of University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars includes four current Booth MBA students: Aleena Agrawal, Prachi Naik, Isabel Rodriguez Garcia, and Thomas Voutsos.

The four are part of a larger group that also includes students from the Harris School of Public Policy and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. (The Obama Foundation Scholars program also includes students from Columbia University in New York.)

“Our students are eager to help address some of the world’s greatest challenges,” says UChicago president Paul Alivisatos, AB ’81. “This program provides a vital pathway for them to realize that aspiration.”

Valerie Jarrett, president of the Obama Foundation, says, “These individuals have displayed profound courage, dedication, and the spirit needed to create lasting change in the world.”

First established in 2018 in partnership with the Harris School, the program empowers students who are committed to advancing social change by providing leadership development workshops, mentoring opportunities, and access to strategic communications and fundraising experts. Scholars also have regular meetings with a diverse group of elected officials, diplomats, policymakers, activists, nonprofit leaders, and journalists.

The program was expanded in 2021 to deepen the focus on urban challenges facing the South Side, greater Chicago, and communities around the world while also supporting emerging leaders across several graduate schools on campus—including Booth and the Crown School. Students have already participated in the first of several Civic Treks during which they visited neighborhoods on the South Side, met with community leaders, and had the opportunity to meet with President and Mrs. Obama.

“Chicago Booth is proud to participate in this cross-campus initiative,” said Starr Marcello, AM ’04, MBA ’17, deputy dean for MBA programs. “The Booth students chosen as UChicago-Obama Scholars share a commitment to use their MBAs for good. Now, they can accelerate their impact building on the strengths of the university and the Obama Foundation. I’d especially like to thank Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation for supporting this new learning opportunity for students interested in social impact.”

Meet Booth’s 2021 UChicago-Obama Foundation Scholars

Aleena Agrawal

Aleena Agrawal

A Chicago native, Weekend MBA student Agrawal has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis and currently works as the director of talent solutions at P33 Chicago, a nonprofit initiative that aims to establish Chicago as a top-tier tech hub and incubator.

“We have a diverse talent base here as well as world-class companies and universities, but we have not been as successful as we could be in terms of retaining and promoting these assets,” she says. “My job is to bring all of these groups together in ways that benefit the city and the people who grow up in it.”

She is hoping that the program, with its interdisciplinary approach and wide access to community and thought leaders, will expand her vision by allowing her to examine problems and challenges from multiple angles.

“I’m part of an incredible cohort of people who are trying to figure out who they are as leaders and how they can bring real change to our communities,” she says, adding that the program is, in many ways, a logical extension of Booth’s curriculum. “Booth has given me all kinds of new tools with which to solve problems.”

Prachi Naik

Prachi Naik

A native of Pleasanton, California, Full-Time MBA student Naik helped found a KIPP public charter school in the Bay Area and taught English at a university in Turkey thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. Prior to Booth, she received a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.

“As a middle-school teacher in an underserved community,” she says, “I observed the poverty and trauma my students experienced on a daily basis and how unequipped schools are to deal with these issues.” Out of this experience came Counselors for America, a nonprofit initiative Naik founded to recruit newly graduated mental-health professionals to commit to practicing in low-income public schools for a set period of time. She honed her idea through the Polsky Summer Accelerator and Booth’s Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation course, taught by Rob Gertner, the Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and John Edwardson Faculty Director of the Rustandy Center.

Naik credits Booth’s pay-it-forward culture with helping her shape the program. “I am consistently floored by the willingness of my classmates and professors to support one another,” she says. “Achieving the kind of widespread systemic transformation I envision will require me to cultivate a powerful network of leaders with expertise in education and public health. The UChicago-Obama Scholars program will help me build this network and learn from changemakers at all levels of governance.”

Isabel Rodriguez Garcia

Isabel Rodriguez Garcia

For Full-Time MBA student Rodriguez Garcia, “climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation.” A native of Mexico City, she has long been interested in the role farming plays not only in health and nutrition but also in the environment. The result is Axo, a company she created at Booth that is designed to promote regenerative agricultural practices in her home country.

“When I first read about regenerative agriculture,” she says, “I became amazed by its benefits and how it connects everything in a holistic way. If we take care of our soils, we take care of our food. With that we take care of our planet and ourselves.”

Axo’s approach includes creating a platform for farmers who practice regenerative agriculture to connect with interested buyers. Rodriguez Garcia credits adjunct professor of entrepreneurship Mark Tebbe’s Entrepreneurial Discovery class with helping her define the project. “The UChicago-Obama Scholars program,” she says, “is designed to help scholars become better leaders of change, and that is my ultimate goal.”

Thomas Voutsos

Thomas Voutsos

Full-Time MBA student Voutsos grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. After college and a stint in the US Marine Corps, he spent two years working for a startup brewery in North Carolina that employs active gang members to unite communities and reduce street violence. His exposure to this population opened his eyes to the lack of affordable housing options they and their families experience, leading him to form LadderUp Housing with three fellow students during his first quarter at Booth.

“The housing market in poor neighborhoods is broken,” he said. “The goal of LadderUp is to provide housing that is affordable while at the same time creating a company with a sustainable business model.”

The company, which tied for second place in Booth’s 2021 John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge, acquires and renovates blighted homes in midsize Midwestern cities and then sells them on a lease-to-own basis to low-income families and individuals. The company recently set up a pilot program in Toledo, Ohio, and closed on its first house in September.

Voutsos says that Booth has been an invaluable resource for him during this process. “In literally every aspect of building this business, Booth has helped,” he says. “I am very grateful for the graciousness of the Booth community. I’m really excited about learning from all of the experts that are a part of the Obama Foundation network. In that the program has structured the cohort to include people from Harris and the School of Social Work, I’ll have the opportunity to learn lessons from these other fields as well.”

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