Interview with Mari, Top Student Innovator in Mastercard’s Refugee Challenge

Mari and team earned $2,500 for their idea to help address UN Sustainable Development Goal #9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.

Mari, a student at Delaware Design-Lab, leads a team with a business idea that can help refugees. Their concept, “ReThinking Refuge,” is a system that allows refugees to provide an ID based on a finger scan. Mari came up with this idea while participating in NFTE’s World Series of Innovation: Sustainable Development Goals competition, and we asked her a few questions about her inspiration and plans for the future.

1. After you read the World Series of Innovation Challenges, how did you come up with the idea for your winning submission? What inspired you?

Originally my idea was very different: a card covered in a substance to prevent photo IDs from getting scratched, with machines around refugee camps that could read the cards. After looking at links from NFTE on the World Series of Innovation page, I learned there is such a thing as eye-scanning for refugees. I thought about this, and realized that not everyone has all body parts, not everyone can speak… I was thinking about something that could help refugees from all different backgrounds.

2. Are you interested in social/political issues?

I actually do a lot of work with social and political issues. I hope to be a successful activist when I get older. This is a big step, winning the World Series of Innovation.

I am grateful to have received a scholarship to attend the ACLU Summer Advocacy Institute this summer, and I do a lot of work with GLSEN at my school, for students to feel comfortable being gay, transgender, anything. I try to organize trips for our school’s pride club. Up in Philly, they do a 5k every year called “Walk Against Hate,” and I helped to organize a local walk in my neighborhood supporting Walk Against Hate. I also negotiated to get a free bus for the gay pride club to travel to the walk in Philadelphia. So we did two 5Ks.

I work for environmental health too and truly believe these things are very important.

These projects I’m doing are steps to get to the level where I want to be.

3. Did you know about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) before participating in World Series of Innovation?

Actually I didn’t. When I did find out about it, I researched it more and more, and when I found out about it I did lots of research and it really helped us complete the ReThinking Refuge project.

I think it’s important not to be focused on just one issue, so the 17 Sustainable Development Goals I think make a lot of sense. Mom says, don’t put yourself in a position where you can’t juggle everything. I love my mom, she’s my rock, but I think there’s so much one person can do.

I try to do the most positive things I can from LBGT+ to equality to animal rights to environmental health to poverty—I am interested in every single category. Why? There are so many issues in the world, and answers can be obvious—what seem like difficult answers can become easier for all of these things when we work together.

4. What are your goals and aspirations (generally—not specific to World Series of Innovation or school! Career aspirations, life aspirations)?

My goal right now is to finish up high school, and to keep working with my entrepreneurship teacher, Ms. Marvel, to get a bigger stance on activism.

I hope to attend Dell-Tech vocational college’s SEED program, where you get to do two years of college for free if you maintain a certain GPA. Then I want to do two years of volunteer Peace Corps. Then I want to do my last two years of my bachelor’s degree at NYU.

I’d like to study social science, the ability to communicate in a very effective way. Also social and political justice. I’d like to team up with different organizations and one day have my own. My NFTE business plan: “Mean It, Say It”—I’m interested in doing something more with that in the future.

I’d also love to be a spoken political and justice social poet. There’s a mental health organization called TWOLHA that does Heavy and Light with free-talking poets—this mixes my activism with being creative and an artist. TWOLHA tries to break the stigma of mental health being a disease. One of their projects is working with women to make soaps and then proceeds go to refugees.

5. Do you plan to turn your World Series of Innovation idea into a business?

We don’t have an intent to build out this business right now, but I hope another company does! I hope Mastercard thinks about doing the idea or shares the idea with other organizations. If it were made, I wouldn’t want money, but I would want people to know that a high school student came up with the idea to help others.

6. What are your plans with the prize money?

Originally, I tried to give my personal part of the prize money ($1,000) to my mom to help fix up the house. She appreciated it, but we came to the conclusion (mostly her) that we wouldn’t do that. We’re going to put the money away for college.

Nancy Marvel, my entrepreneurship teacher, is a great mentor and teacher and one of my closest friends despite being a teacher. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to do half of the stuff I’ve gotten to do. For the portion of the grant that NFTE gives toward your school ($500), I gave my school the money to go toward our entrepreneurship program. I went to our principal and asked for my grant to go to Ms. Marvel.

7. What would you tell someone who isn’t sure if they can make a difference when faced with big challenges like the Sustainable Development Goals?

When I was first starting out and becoming confident enough to do activism, I didn’t know where to start at all. What is came down to—you can’t start big at the top. Your goal shouldn’t be to make it big, it should be to make a difference because you want to. You start small, in your household, school, community, and that truly does grow. It eventually hits a whole continent. Even if a lot of people like myself don’t know what the SDGs are, they should look into it. Change takes a long time, not an overnight thing. It takes a lot of time really. Don’t get discouraged about things—eventually all the hard work will pay off, and the next thing you know you’ve completed one of the development goals.


Mari also shared the following thoughts and thanks:

I want to thank my World Series of Innovation partner, Gwen. She was a really supportive partner, she had my back, without her, I wouldn’t have gotten it done.

And thanks to my mom, who helped me put my words into text when submitting my idea.

I hope that NFTE continues to grow even bigger, because entrepreneurship in general—even if you don’t want to be an entrepreneur—is a great skill to have. Even if you want to win a competition like World Series of Innovation or the ACLU—it helps with that. It’s great to put your thoughts out there. I hope NFTE continues to broaden their opportunities and lessons.