by Shermin Luo
I started my life as a reserved and shy girl, afraid to face a challenge because of my congenital heart disease. As a result, I was targeted for bullying at school: my classmates would beat me, and sometimes I’d come home with bite marks all over my arms. It was not until I had to go to the hospital one day that my parents finally became aware of the bullying. Without a proper framework for addressing this classroom behavior, my parents addressed the issue head-on. Instead of demanding medical or emotional compensation, my parents gave the bullies a dozen books in the hope that knowledge would give them a second chance and a new perspective to treat others with kindness and dignity. It wasn’t only about me but about changing the entire bullying culture so that school could be the safe, inclusive place it was meant to be.
My parents were not only my heroes; they were also the community’s heroes. When I was young, I did not understand my parent’s commitment to save the world. I did not understand my father’s passion as a clean energy scientist, nor did I understand why my mother took a significant pay cut to go from chief engineer at a Fortune 500 company to our city’s Vice Mayor in charge of healthcare and education. I felt as if I was competing with “the world” for a place in my parents’ hearts when I was sent to boarding school at age 11 because they often worked until midnight or were not available when I sometimes needed them most. However, instead of resenting my parents, I became even more curious about their motivations and how I could channel their positive energy.
Even after I went away to boarding school, their influence on me continued to grow. Eventually, as an undergraduate student at Columbia University, I found myself surrounded by a group of highly motivated peers, including my future co-founder, Christine Wang. For the first time, I asked myself what I could do for others from my position of privilege. It was undoubtedly the same question that my parents had asked themselves. The answer became pretty obvious when I looked back at my experience.
In the Chinese education system, I was taught to stay on the set path that promises a bright future to those who are hard-working. I loved writing, running, and dancing, but those subjects were considered to be “useless,” even though I won first place in a writing competition in Hangzhou, became a national second-level athlete in track, and performed with my dance crew in City Hall.
As a high school boarding student in the US, I was shocked that my individuality and passion were valued. I was supported and encouraged to publish a bilingual book when I was still in ESL class, and I became the first Chinese female on the school’s varsity cross-country team. I realized how fortunate I was to have new choices because of these rich experiences–thanks to my supportive and able parents—while many others did not. With Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” as my inspiration, I became determined to bring this recognition of individual potential and self-awareness back home. This led me to co-found the Global Youth Mentorship Initiative (GYMI).
My co-founder Christine and I were extremely fortunate to win the first social venture competition that we entered as a GYMI team, and with the seed grant from the Resolution Project in 2013, we were able to launch our program that summer. If truth be told, I embarked on my journey as a social entrepreneur with GYMI somewhat unknowingly. Ironically, I didn’t even realize we were entering the “nonprofit” world by creating a social venture. I simply wanted to bring what I experienced as a student in the US back to others who were less privileged.
By early 2017, GYMI had grown into a 250-member nonprofit that had provided one-on-one long-term support to over 600 left-behind children, who are left in rural areas while their parents work in urban areas. And we took on the mission to become a voice for youth and to fight for the vulnerable ones in our communities. But it was the individual stories from the volunteers that helped me decide that this was truly my long-term career path. I scheduled one-on-one meetings with my volunteers and operating team members during a trip to China in an effort to create a better organizational culture at GYMI. During these meetings, I heard many stories about how GYMI changed their perspective on the social impact space and helped many of them decide to work in the education space or to pursue an education-related job. One story, in particular, stood out to me. Qiaoqiao was a volunteer mentor from a 2014 program, but she was actually a left-behind student herself. She was abandoned in a village and rescued by her adoptive parents. “No one cared about what I wanted or needed when I was growing up,” she said with tears in her eyes, “And of course no one believed in me. And for a while, I thought that this was it. Maybe I was just born not worthy.” Volunteering with GYMI was her last attempt to find meaning, and it indeed became the turning point in her life. She found something that resonated with her, and she saw the impact she could make on others. She ended up changing her major to education, and then she became the very first full-time employee at GYMI.
I shared Qiaoqiao’s story about the importance of youth in social impact at a TED-style conference in one of GYMI’s program cities with a live audience of 500 and another 13,000 people online. GYMI and Qiaoqiao’s story inspired those who had never thought about creating social impact to understand its power, and many audience members followed up with me in order to volunteer. In fact, one young co-founder and CEO of a well-known bubble tea chain was so touched by my message that he wrote his company’s first philanthropic check while sitting in his conference chair.
Through experiences like this, it became clear to me that social impact is where I belong and, better yet, what I’m good at. I’m not only motivated by people in need, but also thrilled to influence more people to join the space. One of the best choices I made on this journey is to embrace the life where social entrepreneurship has taken me; to not be afraid to let my venture change who I am and what I believe in. This reciprocal relationship with my team and my people has transformed me into someone I personally respect more and someone who’s in accordance with everything my father and mother taught.
Upon confirming my commitment to the social impact space, I took on a new role as the Youth Representative for the Resolution Project to the United Nations, where I discovered many problems in our current philanthropic system and many opportunities for improvement, especially in partnerships between the private and public sectors. My work experience with GYMI has focused on empowering vulnerable children, especially those in rural China, through quality education and socially responsible leadership. As I continue this work, I plan to take a pedagogical approach to help China establish a healthy social enterprise and impact investing ecosystem for businesses and philanthropists to more efficiently and effectively support the region.
Shermin Luo is a graduate of Columbia University, where she studied Engineering Management Systems, Sociology, and Psychology. Her interests are diverse, ranging from street jazz dancing to writing poetry, and this diversity of interests led her to found the Global Youth Mentorship Initiative (GYMI), a social venture to foster creativity in underprivileged students. Shermin believes that each student deserves the opportunity to become the best version of oneself and to achieve their highest potential in life.