Women Who Empower announce 2022 Innovator Awards winners among Northeastern students and alumnae

Winners and honorees of the 2022 Innovator Awards (from top, left to right): Wendy Price, Priscilla Marie Colon, Michelle Beaudette, Jae’da Turner, Kate Weiler, Birta Olafsdottir, Hannah Ung, Samantha Johnson, Tabitha Boyton, Temidola Ikomi, Tahisha Charles, Natasha Shazana, Cynthia Orofo, Valerie Robert, Wenjun Zhang, Ashley Girard, Eliana Berger, Amanda Céspedes, Madhuri Iyer, Yewande Masi, Amy Andes, Melissa Mullen. Illustration by Hannah Moore/Northeastern University

Twenty-two is the lucky number for recipients of the 2022 Innovator Awards, given out by the Northeastern’s Women Who Empower platform. A panel of judges selected 22 female honorees, who will receive a total of $220,000 in cash prizes, with first-place winners taking home $22,000 each in the award program’s second year. 

Diane MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement, is the co-founder of Women Who Empower. She said the awards provide more than just money. They also provide an opportunity to share what these female entrepreneurs are working on, find mentors and a supportive community.

“These awards are not materially large enough to create the difference in a business’ success or not,” she said. “[It’s about] increasing visibility and recognition for some of the most impressive entrepreneurs in our community and enabling access to somebody that can help make a difference in what they are doing.”

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The 2022 winners represent all Northeastern colleges and multiple countries on five different continents. The contestants came from a variety of disciplines ranging from consumer goods to robotics to social enterprises.

“The finalists were reflective of the university as a whole, in its global reach and in its interdisciplinarity,” MacGillivray said.

The participants were divided into five categories: young alumnae graduates, young alumnae undergraduates, experienced alumnae who graduated before 2014, undergraduate students and graduate students.

The winners of the first-place awards in each category are:

  • Samantha Johnson, a young alumnae graduate of the College of Engineering, Class of 2021, who is working on a low-cost communication product customized for deafblind individuals at her company, Tatum Robotics. 
  • Temidola Ikomi, co-founder of a female-owned womenswear business, Irawo Studio, in Nigeria and a young alumnae undergraduate of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Class of 2017. 
  • Natasha Shazana, an experienced alumnae of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Class of 2013, and owner of the empowering bra brand, Soko, for everyday women in Malaysia. 
  • Tabitha Boyton, founder and editor in chief of an interdisciplinary magazine of politics, law, art and culture, Res Publica, and an undergraduate student of the London-based New College of the Humanities, Class of 2022. 
  • And Cynthia Orofo, a graduate student at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Class of 2024, who created a hybrid health support program, Culture Care Collective, that integrates community health workers into clinical care teams to coordinate care for marginalized groups and increase access to socially supportive healthcare at low costs.

More than 135 contestants were evaluated this year based on several rubrics: innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship, authenticity, community and inclusion, and their track record. The highest scorers faced the expert judges for the final showcase via Zoom.

All of the winners demonstrated “a great deal of heart,” love for what they are doing and willingness to keep trying and face the obstacles, MacGillivray said.

“It is really inspiring to be around all of these women who really are taking ownership of their leadership, and taking ownership of ideas, and taking ownership of where they want to go in life,” said Jill Bornstein, one of the judges and founder of UpNext Leadership and Executive Coaching.

Other judges included Leslie Kilgore, a board member and former chief marketing officer at Netflix and a former director of marketing at Amazon; Julietta Dexter, co-founder and chief growth and purpose officer of ScienceMagic, a creative and strategic brand-building company; Cathy Papoulias-Sakellaris, a former executive at global companies like Procter & Gamble, Nielsen Marketing Research, ITT, and Dun & Bradstreet; Cheryl Kaplan, president of M.Gemi, an Italian shoe and handbag brand; and Jean Kovacs, an entrepreneur, angel investor and partner at a venture capital firm Hillsven.

“Part of the value of this competition is they will have each other,” Kovacs said. “And there is a tremendous amount of value in having a cohort where they are all at about the same stage of their business journey. Just having people to bounce ideas off of is really, really valuable.”

The Innovator Awards are given to the woman and not to the venture, said Betsy Ludwig, executive director of women’s entrepreneurship at Northeastern, who oversaw organizing of the award. There are a lot of other accelerator programs that focus on the venture itself and that have stringent rules about how the money can be spent.

“I believe that as a university, we are in the business of building and supporting entrepreneurs and innovators and not building businesses, so we want people who are going to go out into the world and keep doing this,” Ludwig said, adding that if a woman succeeds she will hopefully start investing in other young entrepreneurs.

“We know that women’s access to capital still lags far behind,” said MacGillivray, despite improved balance in the number of women who think of themselves as entrepreneurs and men with the same ambitions. 

This year’s second-place winners will receive $10,000 grants, while two additional honors recipients in each category will each get $5,000.

“There is just a huge appetite for this award, and there are just so many amazing women from all different backgrounds who keep applying and keep wanting to be part of this community,” Ludwig said. “We hope over the years that this community will grow to support each other, nourish each other, and also just inspire the next generation of female founders.”

MacGillivray hopes that Women Who Empower will continue to scale its support of students and alums throughout the entire Northeastern network.

“Northeastern is the only place with this number of campus platforms that can really create that really direct connection between different countries, between different cities, between different sectors,” she said.

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