Some of the women who appear at the annual Women in the World summit are globally recognized: movie stars, heads of state, Fortune 500 CEOs. Others are grassroots heroes, spearheading resistance movements from the trenches.
And then there are the ones you may not have heard of, but who are making a vital impact — women innovating positive change through brilliant ideas with the power to impact lives across the globe in ways large and small.
Since 2012, Toyota has granted more than $1 million in funds to women who work to improve their communities and the world through innovation, entrepreneurship, and invention. At this year’s summit, the women behind three groundbreaking concepts were recognized as the latest to join the ranks of Toyota’s Mothers of Invention. They shared their creations — and the stories behind them — with the audience.
Shubham Issar and Amanat Anand, Co-Founders of SoaPen
Shubham Issar, a native of New Delhi, met Amanat Anand while the two women were studying industrial design at Parsons School of Design in New York City. They soon realized that they both viewed the skill sets they were developing as opportunities to improve the world — industrial designers, they believed, are meant to be problem-solvers.
As problems go, they picked a big one. Each year, 1.5 million children under the age of 5 die of infectious diseases. When Issar and Anand learned that up to 50 percent of those deadly infections could be prevented by children regularly washing their hands with soap, they knew they had to pursue a solution.
That solution was SoaPen, a device that makes soap cheaply available, easily transportable, and — most important — fun for children to use. By putting the soap in a marker-like drawing utensil, SoaPen turns washing hands into playtime — and scrubbing away germs into an irresistible art project. The product is also convenient for school teachers managing large classes, as is common in India. Teachers can have the students draw on their hands and then check for traces of the soap after the children wash them.
After Anand and Issar’s invention won UNICEF’s Wearables for Good Challenge, they used the money to seed development of the SoaPen, an arduous process that took more than two years. They launched on Amazon in October 2018, and ever since, “it’s been a whirlwind,” said Issar, adding that the money from their sales in the U.S. help them provide SoaPens to schools in India for free.
“With the lower-income schools [in India], soap is precious,” said Anand. “Our job is to make it easy for the teachers so that it’s easy in the classroom.”
Paige Chenault, Founder and CEO of The Birthday Party Project
On her organization’s website, Paige Chenault’s bio lists her as Chief Birthday Enthusiast, and as the CBE of the Birthday Party Project, she’s been spreading that enthusiasm for the last seven years.
Chenault first conceived of the Birthday Party Project on a flight in 2008. Pregnant with her daughter, she was fantasizing about the birthday parties she would one day throw for her. Then, she began reading a magazine article about destitute kids in Haiti and realized that for them, the bashes she was daydreaming about just didn’t exist. She realized she could put her background in party planning to good use throwing birthday parties for low-income children in and around her home city of Dallas.
She partnered with a local homeless shelter, which she visited once a month, bringing with her a cake, games and party favors for all the kids whose birthday fell in that month. It was a wild success, and in 2012, the Birthday Party Project — which has since expanded to many other cities, from New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles — was, in a word, born.
Since then, the Birthday Party Project has helped 8,500 young people celebrate their birthdays with 60,000 cupcakes, 50,000 glowsticks, and some 2,000 renditions of ‘Happy Birthday.’
Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, Co-Founders of BioCellection Inc.
After meeting through their high school’s recycling club, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, then 17 years old, made a startling discovery: the bacteria in their local river had evolved to break down plastics.
What had been floating along under everyone’s noses turned out to be a revolutionary advancement in the science of recycling. As they said in a presentation of their findings in a 2013 TED Talk, they had not only unearthed a solution to a pressing environmental problem, they had also discovered that “being open to uncertain outcomes and taking risks creates opportunities for unexpected discoveries.”
Two years later, while Yao was studying at the University of Toronto and Wang at the University of Pennsylvania, the two friends launched BioCellection Inc. to implement their approach. Though they were still in college, the urgency of the world’s plastics problem spurred them to act. Roughly 92 percent of plastics are discarded as trash, with much of this ultimately finding its way to the ocean. If things continue at this rate, experts have warned, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by the year 2050.
Perhaps most amazingly, BioCellection’s method doesn’t just break down plastic waste, it turns it into biodegradable components that can be sold to chemical manufacturers. These chemicals can be used to make nylon, paint, even additives for pharmaceuticals. Today’s discarded water bottle could become tomorrow’s can of Autumn Sunrise.
Ultimately, Wang and Yao’s goal is to cultivate a new recycling economy in a waste management industry long dominated by men. Their own team currently has five women and just two men. But it won’t stay small for long — BioCellection is preparing to scale up and will soon increase the amount of plastic it works with by a factor of 100.
Additional reporting Emily Guilfoil.