A Wharton initiative championing global change

The Ideas for Action Wharton undergraduate student club is a joint initiative with the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research to engage youth around the world in developing solutions to global challenges.

Screen shot of virtual meeting with various people on camera and some off-camera.
The Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School, Penn, and its many partners issued a call for proposals for an initiative: Building Capacity to Combat COVID-19 in Africa: Ideas and Innovations from Young Entrepreneurs. (Image: Courtesy of Ideas for Action, Wharton School)

The Ideas for Action initiative was founded in 2015 following the creation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the vision of financing the future of international development.

Wharton School lecturer and Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research senior fellow Djordjija Petkoski is the adviser for Ideas for Action. Petkoski leads a team that includes co-presidents Pallavi Menon, a fifth-year senior at Wharton, Rikki Kong, a sophomore at Wharton, and Tyler Kliem, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.

With a strong team of leaders, the club has hosted speakers from the World Bank in April 2021, held the annual Ideas for Action competitions, and presented at the NYC UN Youth Assembly 2020.

A selfie taken at the assembly with one person in the front and 6 other members in the back.
In February 2020, the Youth Assembly, a platform created by the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation to encourage youth to become involved in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, hosted its 25th session at New York University. (Front) Joud Tabaza. (Left to right) Aakash Jajoo, Shivin Uppal, Adam Goudjil, Angel Wu, Pallavi Menon, and Azd Billeh. (Image: Courtesy of Joud Tabaza)

The Ideas for Action club operates through three branches: the Executive Committee, the Accelerator Committee, and the Special Initiatives Committee. The Executive Committee takes responsibility for the review proposals for global initiatives that the club launches. The Accelerator Committee provides consulting advice and support for the winners of these global challenges, enabling social entrepreneurs to form partnerships to expand their ideas. The Special Initiatives Committee adopts a broader role, establishing partnerships and hosting ideation workshops and speaker series for University-specific events.

While the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the implementation of the annual goals of the club, the students adapted quickly to launch the Africa COVID-19 Ideas for Action challenge in 2020. They supported entrepreneurs who lost jobs or internships and brainstormed solutions for an effective private and public sector response to the COVID-19 pandemic in countries throughout Africa. The initiative featured more than 250 proposals submitted from over 20 countries and were reviewed by Wharton students and faculty, as well as health care and policy experts. It was launched with the purpose of encouraging ideas and innovations from young people, and supported by senior decision makers and experts in international development, academia, and the private sector to develop ideas and responses related to COVID-19 challenges.

“When Djordjija proposed that we sponsor an initiative on COVID-19, I

Students and teachers sitting in a conference room at a large table having a discussion.
Pictured at the Wharton School: Djordjija Petkoski, advisor of Ideas for Action club, and William Laufer, director of the The Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research along with members of the Tanoto Foundation and winners of the Ideas for Action Indonesia competition 2019. (Image: Courtesy of Ideas for Action, Wharton School)

suggested a focus on Africa,” says William Laufer, director of the Zicklin Center. “I feared that countries in Africa would be ignored, once again, by those power- and resource-rich economies at the top of the economic pyramid. It was obvious even then that the gap between the availability of any possible treatment or vaccine would cut a clear line between high- and low-income countries. Glaring inequities in public health infrastructure would further define this gap.”

In addition to this work, more than three years ago, Ideas for Action developed their second international program, this time with an emphasis on women’s leadership. SDGs&Her provides a platform in which women entrepreneurs present their established businesses, with the chance to receive development assistance from Wharton, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and United Nations Women.

Since its inception, the club has grown from 10 students to an organization of more than 50, and features prominent partnerships with Penn clubs and external companies.

Petkoski, Menon, Kliem, and Kong talked with Penn Today about the initiative, its impact, and future of the club.

As Ideas for Action’s current president, how has it impacted you and your experience at Penn, and what do you hope for the club’s legacy?

Pallavi Menon: Working with Ideas for Action has definitely been my most meaningful experience in my undergraduate career. I was introduced to the club through Djordjija Petkoski, with whom I took LGST 100 [Ethics and Social Responsibility] during my sophomore year. I found this club to be a fascinating way of translating the frameworks we were being taught in class to a real-world platform of implementing sustainable development projects. I started as a member of the accelerator team, consulting for entrepreneurs from around the world to develop businesses founded on the UN SDGs. Consulting for entrepreneurs from Indonesia, Rwanda, and India, among others, I realized that while many proposals addressed similar health care issues, each team—shaped by local infrastructure, experience, and governmental policies—had their own version of a sustainable solution. This made me realize that I want to be a physician-policymaker involved not only in clinical treatment, but also shaping health policy on the impact of environmental determinants on pediatric health. Seeing its impact, I also worked with the team to get the club trial recognized as a Wharton Club and am excited for the next set of leaders to continue to learn from and extend the Ideas for Action Penn legacy.

How has Ideas for Action had a global impact?

Tyler Kliem: Fortunately, Ideas for Action has allowed me to see sustainable development with a more global lens. The collaborative mission of us young people—at Penn and abroad—has brought me hope for a more united future. Working with young people around the world through our competitions has been enlightening. The Africa COVID-19 Challenge elevator pitch event introduced me to confident innovators. I’ve continued to feel inspired by the remarkable people I’ve met—many of whom are halfway across the globe. Ideas for Action is a unique opportunity for Penn students to pop the ‘Penn bubble,’ allowing us to expand our connection to other mission-driven university students overseas.

Two people talking, sitting at a table across from each other with a closed laptop.
Conversation between Wharton student Pallavi Menon and the leader of the social incubator at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, India, explaining the concept of design thinking workshops and the Ideas for Action platform to encourage Indian representation in the Ideas for Action competition in January 2019. (Image: Courtesy of Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, India)

What has the experience been as a student involved in a global initiative such as Ideas for Action?

Rikki Kong: Having joined Ideas for Action at the start of the challenge, I had the opportunity to see the entire project from start to finish, and it was a very eye-opening experience to be able to witness the unique approaches that the participants took to solve challenges in their immediate communities. It was definitely very rewarding to co-lead the final elevator pitch event in December and see the tremendous progress that each of the presenting teams made throughout this journey.

As the club’s adviser, how does the future look for the club?

Djordjija Petkoski: It has been an incredible journey not only for the club members, but also for thousands of young people globally who have been contributing to the SDGs development agenda through this initiative. Their innovative ideas are rooted in youth ingenuity and the utilization of cutting-edge knowledge. At the same time, the club demonstrated its capacity to immediately create and engage with new opportunities, as was the case with the COVID initiative.

The club is well positioned to continue this journey, to strengthen its platform for actionable global knowledge, bringing the perspective of young people to the cross-generational dialogue, particularly in the intersection of the SDGs and ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance].