Create and Lead

Sommer Scholars have a knack—and a need—for founding NGOs.

By Valerie Conners • Illustrations by Karbel Multimedia

"Boldness has magic.”

That, says Raj Panjabi, sums up the single most important leadership lesson he learned at the Bloomberg School. Panjabi, MD, MPH ’06, is founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, a Liberia-based NGO with the mission to save lives in the world’s most remote villages by recruiting and training community health workers.

“The courage to pursue boldness,” he adds, “is a moral choice.”

Panjabi credits the Bloomberg School’s Sommer Scholars Program with bolstering his ability to found his NGO.

The Sommer Scholars Program, which awards full tuition and a stipend to selected students, provides unique leadership enrichment. Since 2005, nearly 250 scholars have graduated from the program.

“A common thread among many Sommer Scholars is an entrepreneurial spirit; they’ve been selected for having demonstrated leadership qualities,” says program faculty director Lainie Rutkow, PhD ’09, MPH ’05, JD, herself a member of the first class of Sommer Scholars. “They saw a problem, saw it wasn’t being addressed in a way they thought was effective and decided to do something about it.”

Case in point: former Sommer Scholar Lynn Huynh, DrPH ’12, MPH/MBA ’07. In 2002, she co-founded VietHope, an NGO providing education access to disadvantaged students in Vietnam. Huynh recognized the empowering role that education played in her life and strove to bring similar opportunities to children in Vietnam.

After launching the NGO, Huynh says, the co-founders faced their greatest challenge: keeping it sustainable. She attributes VietHope’s success to the dedication of the group of friends who created it.

“For anyone starting a new nonprofit, consider whether you have a good group of core individuals who will be there in the next five to 10 years,” she says. “That becomes more important than fundraising.”

Huynh’s experience in the leadership program inspired her to develop an enrichment program, the Youth Development Summit.

“It’s a domino effect,” says Huynh. “You’re not teaching a single skill set; you’re teaching something to sustain people for the remainder of their lives.”


  • Sommer Scholars are creating startups that have impact all over the world.

    Here's a roundup of their work and where they're doing it. 

  • Male Contraceptive Coalition

    Kirsten Thompson, MPH ’08
    San Francisco, CA
    Works to help speed the development of new contraceptives for men

    Percentage of U.S. married couples who rely on vasectomy for contraception vs. 5% of couples worldwide.

  • New Harvest

    Jason Matheny, PhD ’14
    New York, NY
    Kickstarting a post-animal bioeconomy where animal products are harvested from cell cultures

    315 million
    Metric tonnes of meat produced worldwide in 2014 (43.4 kilograms of meat were consumed per person).

  • Face AIDS

    Katie Bollbach, MPH ’13
    Boston, MA
    Mobilizes high school and college students to fight to end AIDS

    35 million
    People living with HIV worldwide at the end of 2013.

  • Last Mile Health

    Raj Panjabi, MPH ’06
    Boston, MA / Monrovia, Liberia
    Partnering with Liberia’s Ministry of Health to save lives in the most remote villages

    Liberian life expectancy in 2013 (up from 56 in 2006).

  • Bridge to Health

    Bill Cherniak, MPH ’16
    Toronto, Canada / Rural Uganda
    Provides medical and dental care while building sustainable health care solutions

    Rank of Uganda’s health system among 191 countries.

  • RJW Foundation

    Awori Hayanga, MPH ’08
    Eldoret, Kenya
    Addresses disparities in the provision of surgical/critical health care in East Africa and beyond

    56 million
    People in Africa who need surgical care.

  • Women in War Program, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

    Jocelyn Kelly, PhD student
    Cambridge, MA
    Investigates and addresses women’s needs in conflict settings such as South Sudan, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo

    Ages of women at greater risk of rape and domestic violence than for cancer, car crashes, war and malaria.

  • The HEAL Foundation

    Jordan Ash, MPH ’10
    Andhra Pradesh, India
    Works in India’s slums, empowering underserved residents to overcome obstacles

    Percentage of people in India who live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day.

  • VietHope

    Lynn Huynh, MPH ’07
    Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
    Provides access to education for disadvantaged students in Vietnam

    14.8 million
    Adolescent population in Vietnam—16.3% of the population.

SOURCES: UNFAO, World Bank, WHO, Surgeons OverSeas