Hello! My name is Spiffy, I’m an Interplanetary Journalist. I’ve been speaking with innovators from around the world who are making education more practical and exciting. Connie Liu, founder and executive director of Project Invent, is working hard to ensure that students have the opportunity to learn about and solve real-world problems. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome, Connie. I admit I’ve read up on Project Invent and I must say, I’m fascinated! Can you start by telling us what challenges you’re addressing?
Connie: Well thanks, Spiffy! Yes, I’d love to. Project Invent is a nonprofit that empowers high school students nationwide to invent technologies that make a difference. We train educators in design thinking, engineering, and entrepreneurship to lead students to identify a real problem in their community and invent a technology solution. Our mission is to empower the next generation of fearless STEM leaders and problem solvers, through invention.
Spiffy: What made you focus on invention? Was there any key motivating factor?
Connie: As an engineer turned teacher turned nonprofit entrepreneur, I founded Project Invent in 2018. When I was an undergraduate student at MIT, I invented products like FingerReader, a camera on a ring to help blind people read on the go. After 12 years of memorizing facts and bubbling in answers in traditional public schools, I was struck by the idea that learning could be about solving real problems and making a real impact. I became passionate about bringing empowering learning opportunities to all students.
Spiffy: That would give learning real purpose! Can you tell me more about how Project Invent is working to create a more equitable world?
Connie: Project Invent builds invention programs that serve all students, particularly those in underserved communities. Every year, 70% of our school partners are Title 1 and low-income serving. Our goal is to empower young people to see that they can make a change in their communities. Our program takes a strengths-based approach so students from all backgrounds see their unique place as agents of change as they invent to change the world.
Spiffy: Have you reached any milestones that you’re really excited about? What kind of impact do you anticipate it having?
Connie: For the first time, this year, we will be serving more than 100 student invention teams through our yearlong Project Invent program. That means we will be able to empower close to 1000 students across the country to invent for social good and tackle real problems in their communities through invention. Students in the program have invented everything from smart wallets to help the blind detect bill denominations, to a football helmet that can detect early signs of concussion. This year, we will make 100 more inventions like these a reality.
Spiffy: I always ask entrepreneurs about their experience with failure. What about you? When have you faced failure and what did you learn?
Connie: Well, Spiffy, during the first year of Project Invent, we didn't raise enough money to hire staff, so I worked full-time with no paycheck and no team to launch the program. We started with 10 schools and they all flew into San Francisco to present at our first inaugural Demo Day, a public pitch event for our student inventors. This event was the catalyst for many donors to make gifts to the organization and launched our program into the growth trajectory it is in today with seven full-time staff and 70 school partners. I learned that perseverance is key during the early days and to lean on volunteers and other dreamers to help support the idea into a sustainable operation.
Spiffy: I have a feeling this is the beginning of something amazing. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today, Connie, it’s been an honor!
Connie Liu is an engineer turned teacher turned entrepreneur. She is recognized as Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education and runs Project Invent to inspire students nationwide to invent technologies that make a difference. She is also an inventor herself, creating assistive technologies to empower those with disabilities. She graduated from MIT and is pursuing an MBA at Stanford University. (Nominated by Vocal Justice. First published on the Ladderworks website on August 19, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.