(Original article publish on the UChicago Harris Public Policy site)

International Innovation Corps to Join Chicago Harris

The International Innovation Corps, a dynamic program focused on fostering innovative solutions to India’s social problems, will soon call the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy home.

IIC works to connect outstanding graduates from the University of Chicago and Indian universities with public sector enterprises in India. Together, over the course of a 13-month period, they build and implement solutions for development problems. The program, launched last year at the University of Chicago Law School, will move to Chicago Harris July 1.

“With Chicago Harris’s growing international focus and IIC’s interest in cutting-edge policy research, there are obviously a lot of exciting synergies between us,” said Chicago Harris Dean Daniel Diermeier. “I look forward to supporting IIC’s work to tackle pressing social problems alongside the Indian government and welcome the opportunity to extend our deep policy expertise to address global concerns.”

Hands-on work

Mrinalini Penumaka, AB’14, has spent the past year working on sustainable energy issues in rural India. As an IIC fellow, Penumaka has worked directly with public sector enterprises in India to pursue concrete changes, an opportunity she could not pass up.

“Theoretically, you can come up with solutions to problems. In practice, it’s very different,” said Penumaka, who was born in India, grew up in Malaysia and the United States, attended the University of Chicago College, and incoming student at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “A lot of fellowships let you work in the sector on issues, but what makes IIC unique is that it lets you work with the government hand-in-hand.”

In its inaugural year, IIC chose 15 fellows to work on three projects: planning integrated and sustainable charter cities in a new industrial corridor between Delhi and Mumbai; establishing vocational training and jobs creation programs in the textile sector; and working with a government-owned company to develop standards for renewable energy use and make solar energy technology available in rural India. The IIC fellows gain invaluable experience working with government officials, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups on planning and implementing solutions in a real-world setting.

Benefits all-around

Anup Malani, faculty director of IIC and professor of law at UChicago, said projects such as these are difficult in India where bureaucrats often change jobs at least once a year. The key, Malani said, is that both fellows and the Government of India benefit.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is not just creating a great fellowship program, but making some development advancements,” Malani said. “We want to do work that makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Accomplishing that goal has a lot to do with the implementation portion of IIC’s mission.

“It looks a lot like a consulting engagement, except instead of doing research and writing white papers, our fellows and partners implement the ideas,” Malani said. “The fellows learn how to actually put the plan into action. It’s really important to feel empowered, to be able to make the change yourself—to see that you don’t need other people to do the implementation portion. If you want to change the world, you can do it yourself.”

Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds, making teams truly interdisciplinary. For UChicago students, the program is open to any recent graduate from any field of study.

“We’re really looking for a diverse range of skills and experiences,” said Katherine Sacco, IIC assistant director of operations. “We know a lot of students are interested in international development. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do that in a hands-on way besides through IIC.”

Sacco said recruiters are looking for fellows who work well on teams, are creative thinkers and can handle a challenging work environment. 

Penumaka said the interdisciplinary nature of the work she’s doing in India has been one of the most valuable pieces of her fellowship.

“As a young person on a team addressing major challenges, learning how other people approach problems has been invaluable,” Penumaka said.

Growing already

A new partnership with the Research and Innovation Fellowships program of the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Development Lab is helping IIC grow. Phoebe Holtzman, director of operations, said the IIC plans to add at least one more team of five fellows for the 2015-2016 program. Further expansion in India and in other Asian and Latin American countries is also possible in future years.

“This partnership with USAID opens new doors to project opportunities with U.S. Missions in India and other countries,” Holtzman said. “This will expand our network of project partners and provide fellows a larger global support-system.”

For more information or to apply for a fellowship, visit iic.uchicago.edu.

–Brian Wallheimer