Women Who Empower announce 2023 Innovator Awards winners

Winners of the 2023 Women Who Empower Innovator Awards. Left to right: Sajni Vederey, founder Shoerzo; Adebukola Ajao, founder of For All Things Digital; Madison Rifkin, CEO and founder of Mount; Rachel Domb, founder of Rooted Living; Jessica Pogranyi, co-founder of Cara a Cara. Illustration by Zach Christensen/Northeastern University

Twenty-eight entrepreneurs have been recognized for their innovative, boundary-pushing work by Northeastern University’s 2023 Women Who Empower Innovator Awards. The recipients, students and alumni from the Northeastern community, were selected by a panel of judges and will receive a record total of $500,000.

The Innovator Awards, now in their third year, are about more than providing funding for Northeastern’s changemakers. For 10 years, Women Who Empower has been building a global, inclusive women-led entrepreneurial ecosystem through events, scholarships, mentorship programs and entrepreneurial initiatives. 

The $820,000 in one-time grants provided through the awards are just one piece of that puzzle. The Innovator Awards are unique in that the money goes to the individual entrepreneur, not their venture, with the intent of investing in the next generation of changemakers and offering them the network of support they need to be successful.

“It’s the way that this process brings people in the network together to get to know each other, to support one another, whether through mentoring or funding or just giving advice,” says Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement and founder of Women Who Empower. “It’s about those small interventions when someone is like, ‘I’ve just gotten rejected for the fifth time,’ and someone else will say, ‘Just give it one more try.’”

The women in the 2023 Innovator Awards cohort represent Northeastern’s global reach, hailing from the U.S. and Canada to Russia, Kuwait and Bangladesh. They also span the entire spectrum of Northeastern’s academic offerings, representing every college at the university. 

That diversity also extends to the ideas and ventures that these entrepreneurs were recognized for. They’ve created a line of sustainable granola and a mezcal brand that works to provide solutions to environmental and social issues. They kickstarted the world’s first revenue-based fund for early-stage startups and an app that leverages the power of multiple rental platforms to connect travelers with hosts and vendors.

The 2023 Innovator Awards recipients were divided into four primary categories: students (which includes current undergraduate and graduate students), experienced alumnae, young undergraduate alumnae and young graduate alumnae.

The first place winners in each of these categories are:

  • Students: Tie between Sajni Vederey, class of 2023 D’Amore-McKim School of Business student who founded Shoerzo, a traditional Indian footwear brand designed for people with diabetes; and Rachel Domb, a psychology student, class of 2024, who created sustainable granola brand Rooted Living.
  • Experienced Alumnae: Jessica Pogranyi, class of 2013, co-founder of Cara a Cara, a mezcal brand focused on addressing environmental and social issues.
  • Young Undergraduate Alumnae: Madison Rifkin, class of 2021, CEO and founder of Mount, a software platform that connects tourists with hosts and vendors who are renting out equipment or offering experiences and knowledge of local communities.
  • Young Graduate Alumnae: Adebukola Ajao, class of 2021, creator of For All Things Digital, an online marketing resource that gives small businesses digital tools to help them better compete in the marketplace.

“These are awards that really recognize the innovator as much as the innovation, and I don’t think there’s anything else quite like that in the university ecosystem right now,” MacGillivray says. “Recipients will tell us, ‘This is a validation. What it says is that people believe in me, the university believes in me, the university’s broader community believes in me.’”

This year’s awards also include several new specialized awards that mirror the mission and values of the university and its Experience Powered by Northeastern campaign. The Innovators Powering a Better Future Awards include five new categories: Powering a Sustainable, Resilient World; Powering Social Impact; Powering Global Change; Powering Diverse and Inclusive Communities of Belonging; and Powering a Healthy Tomorrow.

It’s the way that this process brings people in the network together to get to know each other, to support one another, whether through mentoring or funding or just giving advice.

Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement and founder of Women Who Empower

The first place winners in these categories:

  • Powering a Sustainable and Resilient World Award: Jessica Pogranyi.
  • Powering Social Impact Award: Debpriya Das, class of 2023, founder of Bioland, an educational platform for female high school students in Bangladesh.
  • Powering Global Change Award: Madison Rifkin.
  • Powering Diverse and Inclusive Communities of Belonging Award: Alexis Musaelyan-Blackmon, College of Science and Khoury College of Computer Science class of 2025, creator of Dephend, an AI cybersecurity company aimed at making the digital world safer for everyone.
  • Powering a Healthy Tomorrow Award: Nita Ugbedeojo Akoh, class of 2023, creator of My Atlas, a digital platform that provides personalized mental health support.

These new awards are a way to recognize and support the kinds of changemaking ideas that will make a difference.

“We wanted to make sure we had a way to encourage our entrepreneurs and innovators to be doing things that have that kind of impact,” MacGillivray says. “It might not always be the biggest idea, but it might be the one that makes the world a little bit of a better place.”

A total of 110 applicants were considered for this year’s awards before semifinalists were determined and evaluated by a team of advisors and judges. Candidates were evaluated based on several rubrics: the overall impact of their idea; creativity; leadership; entrepreneurship; authenticity and community and inclusion.

“I was really blown away by the quality of their outstanding ideas––and not just their ideas but their action,” says Winslow Sargeant, Class of 1986, a member of the Northeastern Board of Trustees and one of the judges for the 2023 Innovator Awards. “The future of the world is in good hands with these remarkable leaders.”

The other 2023 Innovator Award judges included: Jill Bornstein, class of 2022, founder of Upnext Leadership Coaching; Cristina Csimma, class of 1991, a member of the board of directors at Palisade Bio; Julietta Dexter, class of 2020, co-founder and chief growth and purpose officer at ScienceMagic.Inc; Cheryl Kaplan, chief executive officer of M.Gemi; and Ronaldo Mouchawar, class of 1988, chief executive officer of souq.com and vice president of Amazon Middle East and North Africa.

When considering all the entrepreneurs and their ideas, Mouchawar says he was impressed by not only the ideas themselves but the global reach they could potentially have.

“The sheer volume of how these ventures grow and exponentially give impact to communities and the circles around these entrepreneurs is incredible,” he says.

The remaining winners and honorees of the 2023 Innovator Awards are:

2023 Innovator Award for Students:

  • Second Place: Nita Ugbedeojo Akoh.
  • Third Place: Joint winners Chloe Welch and Hanna Zainab Elzaridi, D’Amore-McKim School of Business class of 2023, co-founders of SOAR, a protein powder and sports supplement shake vending machine company.
  • Alexis Musaelyan-Blackmon (Honors).
  • Debriya Das (Honors).
  • Kristine Aleksandrovica (Honors), D’Amore-McKim and College of Social Sciences and Humanities class of 2023, founder of Stulitito, a sustainable furniture company.
  • Marine Nimblette (Honors), College of Science class of 2023, CEO and co-founder of Businesses United in Diversity, an organization that supports Black-owned businesses in the Hudson Valley region.
  • Sima Bou Jawde (Honors), Bouve College of Health Sciences class of 2027, creator of Enrich Academia, a platform and fund that empowers young scholars to continue their education through mentorship, practical tools and other resources.

2023 Innovator Award Experienced Alumnae:

  • Second Place: Melissa Withers, class of 2002, managing partner and co-founder of RevUp, the world’s first revenue-based fund for early-stage companies.
  • Third Place: Johanna Davenport Calica, class of 2012, founder of La Porte Swimwear, a sustainable, cultural and gender inclusive luxury resort wear brand.
  • Fourth Place: Massiel Eversley, class of 2006, founder and CEO of Nisus Life, a vegan postpartum and lactation protein powder company.
  • Ammy Lowney (Honors), class of 2005, co-founder of JUICYGREENS, a healthy food provider that focuses on friendly, flavorful, environmentally friendly products.
  • Helene Servillon (Honors), class of 2012, founding partner of JourneyOne Ventures, provider of early stage venture funding for fragmented industries.
  • Shanae Chapman (Honors), class of 2012, founder, CEO and managing director of Nerdy Diva, an inclusive tech solutions company.
  • Taja Lester (Honors), class of 2011, founder and managing partners of Health Equity Capital, a double-bottom-line venture capital fund that invests in life sciences and health equity.

2023 Innovator Award Young Undergraduate Alumnae:

  • Second Place: Dania Alnahdi, class of 2022, co-founder of Cora Care, a biotech company developing at-home, easy-to-use health monitoring tools for pets.
  • Third Place: Gina-Maria Garcia, class of 2015, founder of BUYa Beauty, a sustainable hair extensions company.
  • Fourth Place: Lilly Stairs, class of 2015, founder of The Chronic Boss Collective, a community of ambitious women in business who are living with chronic conditions that helps them maintain their health.
  • Chahhat Lakhwani Melwani (Honors), class of 2018, founder of Cleyo Beauty, an affordable skincare brand based on Ayurveda and Indian heritage.
  • Divya Malpani (Honors), class of 2022, founder and CEO of Skinvest, a dermatologist-formulated skincare brand focused on skin-related concerns for Indian people.

2023 Innovator Award Young Graduate Alumnae:

  • Second Place: Caroline Klibanoff, class of 2018, executive director of Made By Us, a multimedia platform that connects GenZ audiences with historical resources.
  • Denisse Esther Mayers Paulino (Honors), class of 2017, founder and chief creative officer of DEMP Agency, an Afro-Latinx, woman-owned brand strategy, marketing and design agency.
  • Laura Kozuszek (Honors), class of 2021, founder of Island Sustainability Solutions, a platform to help experts solve climate change related challenges.

2023 Powering a Sustainable, Resilient World Award:

  • Second Place: Kristine Aleksandrovica.
  • Third Place: Rachel Domb.

2023 Powering Social Impact Award:

  • Second Place: Gina-Maria Garcia.
  • Third Place: Shanae Chapman.

2023 Powering Global Change Award:

  • Second Place: Sajni Vederey.
  • Third Place: Melissa Withers.

2023 Powering Diverse and Inclusive Communities of Belonging Award:

  • Second Place: Marine Nimblette.
  • Third Place: Taja Lester.

2023 Powering a Healthy Tomorrow Award:

  • Second Place: Lilly Stairs.
  • Third Place: Massiel Eversley.

This year, Women Who Empower recognized the most entrepreneurs in the three-year history of the Innovator Awards. Looking at this year’s innovators, MacGillivray feels both excited and hopeful about what the future holds. These women are a reminder that large-scale change starts with contributions from boundary-pushing individuals.

Fortunately for the entrepreneurs involved in the Women Who Empower network, they’re not trying to change the world by themselves.

“It’s probably been the most rewarding aspect of my professional career, just the privilege and the honor to be part of that community and what people are doing and the ways in which they pick one another up, support one another, have ideas for one another,” MacGillivray says.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.