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A Year of Opportunity by Eli Wachs

It’s been an exciting year since I was honored with the 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards for work with my nonprofit, High School HeroesX (HSHX). HSHX runs incentivized competitions for high school students to find innovative solutions to local issues. These challenges typically awarded the winning high school team less than $2,000. While this financial incentive was somewhat small, it still managed to allow high schoolers to work on solving local problems, from the education gap in Philadelphia to food safety in Beijing, China. The Awards allowed me to dream even bigger.

First, I used $10,000 of my award to launch our biggest challenge ever, one focused on improving driving safety and that was open to students across the U.S. While the driving challenge is national, the advisory board is actually international: one of the top computer scientists focusing on city traffic algorithms is on the board, all the way from Poland! I never would have been able to imagine such a large-scale challenge before becoming a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards recipient.

One of my favorite participant projects created in response to this challenge involves a student-generated simulator that tests self-driving car algorithms, and puts those algorithms to the test in real-time in order to allow cars to learn from their mistakes and avoid crashes. The challenge is broadly titled, as are our expected submissions. Another team is working on a tool for smartphones that monitors your location while driving, to let someone know you’re almost at their house to pick them up. The tool also can communicate with that person so you don’t have to text them, which would force you to take your hands off the wheel. High School HeroesX was also able to help sponsor a hackathon in New York that focused on our topic of the improvement of driving. The ability to cosponsor that hackathon — something HSHX was fully incapable of before the Helen Diller Family Foundation entered my life — is truly special to me. This is because I feel there are unfortunately too few opportunities for young people interested in tech to test out their skills, form teams, and try to tackle issues while young.

When I look back on the last year, there’s no doubt that my desire to drive social impact initiatives around the world was greatly enhanced by attending the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards weekend. I’m sure it also lent me more legitimacy in the world of social entrepreneurship, perhaps helping me get selected for the Young Sustainable Impact (YSI) incubator this past year. YSI, based in Norway, is an incredible, innovative organization that provides a platform for young entrepreneurs to solve pressing global issues. They choose 25 young change makers under the age of 25 from a worldwide pool of ten thousand applicants. Over the past five months, the 25 of us have been working in teams on social impact startups. In August, all of the participants travel to Oslo for an intense two-week program to refine our new companies and business models. Just as I was in awe of my fellow Diller Tikkun Olam awardees, I also admired my fellow participants: people from 17 countries, each with a different perspective and definition of success, all united by one common goal — to change the world. My team created Decdis, a healthcare company focused on preventing the spread of disease. Using artificial intelligence and open-sourced big data, Decdis is working on helping companies — and eventually schools — try to minimize the spread of infectious diseases, such as the flu, by offering company-specific, timely, and implementable measures.

Between HSHX, YSI, Decdis, and starting college, I have continued to perhaps forsake a bit of sleep for a lot of aspirations. Sadly, the past year has not been as kind to the global mission of tikkun olam. It is tough to enact the mission of repairing the world when the U.S. leaves the Paris Climate Accord, and when fences are built to delineate differences instead of mending them. Conversely, I continue to be extremely optimistic. As long as I continue to meet passionate young people, who are steadfast in fixing the looming crises ahead of us, I know the world will heal, and I can’t help but be excited for tomorrow.