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Social entrepreneur urges students to pursue passions, never give up

Jim Ziolkowski, the founder of buildOn, a nonprofit working to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy through education and service, has a compelling message for aspiring entrepreneurs: ‘confront your fears,’ ‘pursue what’s important to you.’

By Lauren Dibble and Nina Angeles

“Every 26 seconds a student drops out of high school in the U.S.,” buildOn founder Jim Ziolkowski told some 300 students, faculty, and staff on Tuesday evening as they watched the on-screen timer behind him stop at 26.

The keynote speaker for the fall semester’s Social Enterprise Institute Lecture Series shared anecdotes and lessons learned from starting and growing buildOn, a global movement working to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through education and service. The event was part of Global Entrepreneurship Week at Northeastern, which concludes Thursday night with NEXPO.

Before Ziolkowski took the stage, SEI founder and executive professor Dennis Shaughnessy introduced Michaela Rivers, a junior at Boston’s Community Academy of Science and Health and a member of its buildOn chapter.

Rivers discussed her personal experience with buildOn and the impact it has made in her life, reflecting on the amazing connection people can make through service. “BuildOn makes a difference in how people see the world and helps break down barriers in our society,” she said.

Confront your fears—we all have them. Take that step and light that fire because yours will be a flame that nobody can put out.
— Jim Ziolkowski, buildOn founder

Northeastern’s buildOn chapter, which recently gained official student organization status, runs a mentorship and exchange program with students of the CASH buildOn chapter. This semester, Northeastern and CASH students engaged in a variety of service projects together—from painting anti-bullying murals in CASH’s hallways to making placemats for homeless shelters for next week’s Thanksgiving meal—and have contributed to the growing 1.6 million hours of service buildOn students nationwide have already completed.

“Our kids are united,” said Ziolkowski, “from Detroit to Chicago to San Francisco and to Oakland to East New York to Crown Heights to South Bronx to Bridgeport.”

Northeastern University buildOn chapter leaders Tim Maurer, CSSH '17, Miranda Beggin, DMSB '17, and Lauren Cosenza, CSSH'17

Northeastern University buildOn chapter leaders Tim Maurer, CSSH ’17, Miranda Beggin, DMSB ’17, and Lauren Cosenza, CSSH’17. Photo by Zach Corenblum, CSSH’16.

Ziolkowski has been crusading for universities like Northeastern to join the buildOn movement since it started back in 1991. By empowering urban youth to lift up their communities and create lasting change in the world through community service, buildOn has designed a model that fosters a greater likelihood for positive life outcomes. “Ninety-three percent of buildOn students not only graduate high school, they go to college,” Ziolkowski said. He gave an example, recounting the story of buildOn student Gimy Arzu, from the Bronx, New York, the economically poorest congressional district in the U.S., and how buildOn’s program steered his life away from gang violence and toward success.

Globally, buildOn constructs a new school every three days; to date, 843 schools have been built across seven countries in the developing world. But Ziolkowski explained that buildOn is not a charity; rather, he said, it’s a movement “designed to empower youth to improve their communities and change the world.”

Later in his remarks, Ziolkowski shared his experience building the first school in Malawi with his brother 20 years ago. Both of them nearly died from malaria and dysentery, he said, but he realized that the locals more often died of extreme poverty. Ziolkowski was determined to help them break the cycle through education.

Twenty years later, Ziolkowski returned to that village in Malawi to find that four more schools had been built by the people of the town and that 1,000 students were attending school there each day, half of them girls.

Ziolkowski’s anecdotes aimed to inspire audience members and encourage them to make a difference in their community. “Confront your fears—we all have them,” he said. “Take that step and light that fire because yours will be a flame that nobody can put out.”

Ziolkowski’s lecture was a featured event of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2015 at Northeastern. In the Q&A, he doled out meaningful advice for the social entrepreneurs in the audience. Ali Kothari, DMSB’17, and one of the co-founders of the IDEA venture New Grounds Food, asked Ziolkowski, “What can I do today, tomorrow, or next week to make our community more vibrant?”

Ziolkowki’s response was straightforward yet powerful. “Start small,” he told the young entrepreneur, “think about what is really important to you, and pursue it. Learn from the people around you. If you do decide to start something, have three words as a mantra: never give up.”

For more information on how you can get involved with the Northeastern buildOn chapter, contact to become a mentor or to volunteer at the next service event.

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