Design thinking gives an Ethiopian refugee the winning edge

High school senior and social entrepreneur Elena Alsen is using her experience to change the fate of refugees.

When Elena Alsen arrived as a freshman at Camelback High School in Phoenix, Arizona, she didn’t know any English. A refugee from Ethiopia, Elena’s mother moved her family to find a safer place to live and a better education for Elena and her siblings. But after learning the language and participating in classes led by teachers Maria Abrams and Julie Bourdo, who had been trained in the Verizon Innovative Learning for design thinkers initiative, Elena was well on her way to becoming the college-bound, award-winning businesswoman she is today.

As part of Verizon Innovative Learning, Abrams and Bourdo were given the tools and training to incorporate entrepreneurship and technology into their class curriculum along with critical design thinking skills. They credit the Verizon program with “bringing their classrooms into the 21st century” and enabling them to provide the skills and real-life opportunities their students need to be successful.

Through the program, Elena learned how to create a 30-page business plan and to write and deliver a speech. She gave her first presentation—to an audience of over 800 people—by sharing her life story, one aimed at changing people’s misconceptions about refugees. From then on, says Abrams, “I saw this person start to unfold into this amazing, powerful woman.”

Four years after coming to the U.S., Elena is headed to Arizona State University, where she’ll study business and marketing. She’s already put her new entrepreneurial skills to work. She started a nonprofit, City of Hope, to give back to the community by helping other refugees, and has earned numerous awards for her work, including being a finalist for Phoenix’s Outstanding Young Woman of the Year.

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