Around the Institute

The First Pitch Competition Hits the Aspen Ideas Festival

June 28, 2013  • Karen Sommer Shalett

The Aspen Ideas Festival held its first-ever Aspen Scholars pitch competition as part of the Case Foundation’s “Be Fearless” campaign. In encouraging solutions for today’s biggest problems, Jean and Steve Case evangelized a “swinging for the fences” mentality devoid of the fear of failure.

“Have you ever seen innovation where someone didn’t take a risk?” asked Jean Case. “Failure teaches. It’s how we advance.”

Stressing the need in innovation to “make big bets and make history,” the Cases offered $30,000 in prize money to five competing Aspen Scholars. The judging panel included Jean and Steve, as well as Melody Barnes, Jackie Bezos, and Jerry Murdock, who all rated the individuals’ ideas. The winner would take home a $10,000 prize to further the work. The $5,000 purse would go to the favorite selected by members of the audience, who texted their votes. The resulting three “pitchers” received $2,500 each.

Chief Technical Officer of HiDef Inc. Zach Hendershot advocated for the chance to build an open source toolkit to increase innovation. Peer Health Exchange CEO and co-founder Louise Langheier highlighted disturbing statistics showing that decreased school budgets have resulted in only one health educator for every five schools in the country. She proposed to use the prize to help scale her program, which trains college students to teach health education in high schools.

Kim McClure, a professional in foreign policy working at the US Department of State, offered an innovative idea to merge social media and hip hop music to teach global affairs to teenagers all over the world. She aims to create an app that delivers a lesson on world issues ending in a five-minute rap summarizing the lesson. The user would record themselves performing their own rap on a culturally expansive topic and share it within their network. She expects the project to be managed through Global Kids.

While these ideas were each potentially game-changing in their own way, the audience favorite was Randell McShepard, co-founder and Chairman of Policy Bridge. McShepard runs an urban farm called the Rid-All Green Partnership. Having taken control of three blighted acres in Cleveland’s Forgotten Triangle, he and two childhood friends have created a farm that sells to local restaurateurs; a farmers’ market selling to neighbors in what was formerly a food desert; a composting station, which creates the beds for growing crops in what was previously a brown field; an edible walking trail, and educational programming.

McShepard will use the $5,000 to create a 21st Century Greenhouse, with the hope that every fourth grader in Cleveland will come to learn about healthy eating. “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” said McShepard, referring to the need to teach the city’s kids about healthy eating through unique methods, including their “Brink City: Green in the Ghetto” comic book series.

For the grand prize, $10,000 was awarded to Kristen Titus, executive director of Girls Who Code. Titus is well-known for her efforts to increase teen girl’s interest in computer science. Her team has set up classrooms and internships within tech companies like Twitter and camps through civic and religious organizations to encourage young women to choose computer science as a major in college. 88 percent of the participants are minorities and 50 percent are on free and reduced lunch.  “0.3 percent of high school girls express interest in studying computer science,” said Titus. “100% of the girls who go through this program say they will definitely or are more likely to study computer science in college.”