How 5 Harvard i-lab Startups Are Rethinking Education

Harvard Innovation Labs
4 min readApr 7, 2021


by Elaine Johanson, Senior Writer

We like measuring things. We like things that are easily measured. Whether it’s grades, test scores, or how long it takes a student to complete an assignment, this data offers a seemingly satisfying way to decide academic success.

But what determines a student’s actual success is not always so quantifiable. What also matters are how a student manages emotions, builds relationships, sets goals, and makes responsible decisions; in other words, the healthy mindsets and habits that make achievement possible. These so-called “soft skills” often set the course for a student’s success in school, outside of school, and in life.

While educators are starting to recognize the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL), incorporating it into curricula is not a one-size-fits-all task. SEL curricula needs to be sensitive to the culture and community around a school. Fortunately, a handful of i-lab ventures are finding ways to help schools incorporate SEL in ways that are tailored to their students’ needs.

1. Shamiri Institute offers low-cost, low-stigma mental health interventions.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, many children experience mental health difficulties and disorders but lack access to care. Thanks to programs like Shamiri Institute, this access is starting to change in the form of culturally-appropriate school programs. “Schools are excellent places to teach students skills for building and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and for coping with problems and stressors,” said Shamiri Institute Scientific Director, Katherine Venturo-Conerly. By helping kids stay healthy, Shamiri Institute is helping kids excel in school.

2. Labhya Foundation’s programs impact 2.5 million children every year in India.

In India, 236 million children are currently enrolled in the public school system, but they are not necessarily learning skills that will help them build strong relationships with themselves and others. That’s where Labhya Foundation is making a difference. The organization partners with governments, nonprofits, and multilateral organizations to implement SEL learning programs. Their programs are currently impacting children across more than 12,000 schools in India.

3. Suadela encourages young women in Mali to speak up for their future.

A targeted approach can have a powerful impact. In Mali, Suadela is piloting a program that teaches negotiation skills to teenage girls to help them self-advocate for their goals. Founder Djénéba Gory noted that such training “…significantly improved girls’ school attendance rates, national exam test scores and pregnancy rates.” By working with young women even before they enter the workplace, the negotiation training they receive can positively affect their entire lives.

4. The Apprentice Project is working to end achievement gaps by enabling kids to pursue their passions.

While The Apprentice Project founder Monica Pesswani succeeded in the ‘rote learning’ system of her school growing up, she was inadequately prepared for the collaboration and communication skills she would need in college. Motivated by the excitement she felt when pursuing passion-based learning, she set out to offer holistic educational opportunities to children in India: “Their passion serves as a tool to build socio-emotional skills — such as problem solving, confidence, creativity, and more — and help them realize their true potential.”

5. Odessa Health helps schools monitor and manage students’ health.

When COVID-19 began to spread, Zach Hermes, MD, saw an urgent need open up: “I felt compelled to explore if and how digital tools could organize and automate key data collection processes related to COVID-19. Done well, the right tools could help schools reopen and make in-person instruction feasible.” His resulting venture, Odessa Health, is a platform that helps schools monitor and manage COVID-19 infections, with plans to help schools better monitor socio-emotional and behavioral health after the pandemic.

The Harvard Innovation Labs is a community dedicated to furthering innovative ideas by students and alumni from all thirteen Harvard schools. Visit our Venture Profile page to learn more about individual teams and the problems they’re solving!



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