You are here

Jen Shen, PhD Candidate, Social Entrepreneur

October 1, 2014

By Liz Hendrix

For Jen Shen and Danny Heller, finding solutions to real-world problems involves looking at them from many different points of view. Shen, a PhD student, and Heller, now an MPP alum, formed Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI) in 2013 as a way for graduate students to work in teams with students in other academic disciplines on community impact projects with local nonprofits.

Highlight for Basic Page

  • Photo of Jen Shen and Danny Heller, DISI founders

    Students Launch Social Innovation Group

    Jen Shen, PhD student, and Danny Heller MPP'14, discuss group projects for Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI), the organization they founded in 2013.

DISI places participating students from the public policy, business, engineering and graduate schools into groups of at least three and assigns each group to work with a nonprofit on a project of their choice. The goal of these collaborative projects is to give students real-world project experience and the opportunity to generate social-sector solutions while learning the basics of each other’s disciplines.

DISI provides services such as impact evaluations, social change strategies, technological development and financial advice. Students worked with Food for Thought, which provides food-filled backpacks to poor rural children in Rowan and Salisbury counties, to develop a storage and distribution warehouse as well as an operations plan for distributing the backpacks.

Work that Will Have a Long-term Positive Impact

“DISI has enabled Food for Thought to access a high level of consulting services that would otherwise have been out of reach to a small nonprofit such as ourselves,” Tory Curran, executive director, told The Salisbury Post. “The work that DISI is doing on behalf of Food for Thought will have a significant impact on the long-term sustainability of our organization.”

In 2014, students teamed with Professor Bob Conrad and the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center to conduct a project evaluation of a pretrial program that will be considered by other programs across the country.

The inspiration for DISI came from past work experiences for both Heller and Shen, who became friends while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Shen worked with students from other disciplines while working on international water issues, which gave her a better understanding of how different groups contribute different knowledge to the same project.

Heller worked at a nonprofit crisis hotline to help maximize the number of calls answered. The process involved a business component of using algorithms to manage calls, a technology component of using a database to reduce paperwork and keep track of calls, and a public policy component of confirming that the hotline was actually helping the caller and increasing access to mental health services.

“About midway through my job I realized, ‘Oh, it would have been great if I had input from people who have experience in these other areas,’” said Heller.   

Succession Planning

Heller and Shen handed off the direction of DISI to a new set of leaders in January 2014. These include co-presidents Kaitlin Carr, a Duke MBA student, and Arjun Rallapalli, a PhD student in electrical engineering, as well as MPP students Sonia Hatfield and Jessi Gordon.

“We want to make DISI better known in the community and around Duke,” said Hatfield. “We want to change our end-of-the-year event into more of a capstone event where we can showcase all of the projects that DISI has completed by the end of the year.”

“We are really excited to see how they will grow what we started,” Heller said.

Revised 9/11/2014; first published April 2014 in Sanford Insights magazine.