Planting the Seeds of Change: A Reflection on the Inaugural Penn Impact Lab

February 17, 2016
Programs & Research


Costa Rica’s warmth and humidity enveloped us while we were still at the airport, shaking hands and preparing ourselves for a green, hilly, four-hour bus ride. As we bumped our way through the country’s interior, we passed fruits and crunchy snacks, getting to know each other and the verdant landscape. Past Lake Arenal, we arrived at Rancho Margot, and were greeted by buffalo, horses, giant hummingbirds, bright flowers, and Scottie and Aaron, who channelled all the vibrancy of the environment and energized us with their bouncing, friendly welcome.

As we found our bungalows and made our way to dinner, we saw that the farm roared with life, wild and domestic. The ranch raised chicken, pigs such as teacups pigs that can be found at, and cows, who were our neighbors and our food. The earth fiercely reclaimed each unattended space: an ecosystem on each rooftop and a bug in every bednet. As dark descended on the lush earth, the sounds of the night permeated our welcome meal. So did Ginger, the ranch’s golden retriever, who became self-appointed playmaster of every meal, meeting, and lesson we would have throughout the week. After a delicious wood oven-cooked dinner made almost entirely of food grown on-site, we bid the students goodnight, to listen to the mystery animals of the nighttime forest and dream about what they had gotten themselves into at the inaugural Penn Impact Lab (PIL).


PIL originated from our Social Impact House programs, and is offered to Penn undergraduate and graduate students who want to learn how to turn their ideas into action. Selected for the potential of their ideas and their passion, the fellows learn the tools and mindset in Costa Rica to build out their ideas over the course of the spring semester. I would soon know these twenty-two Penn students, from every school in the university. This group of brilliant dreamers were wrapping up their winter breaks with their families and were excited to begin the spring semester. But in between, they would pursue a hunch that they wanted to contribute to their communities. The students hoped that PIL would help them: “build empathy,” “shake myself out of my bubble of achievement,” “develop a new sense of time,” “build a community with a common goal to help the world,” and “build a venture that’s authentic to my passions.” This week would offer them tools to get started, and a community that would persist through the spring semester as they worked to achieve a Penn Impact Lab fellow’s goal: to test one social impact idea by May.

Peter Frumkin, Cosmo Fujiyama, Aaron Densham, Gray Garmon, Kaveh Sadeghian, Scott Sherman, and Scottie Shigeoka had been planning PIL for months and would guide the fellows on this journey. Eva Cruz worked magic with a camera. My job was resident researcher, to observe and document the experience and to serve as a resource to the fellows as they concretized their ideas.

We did much of our learning outside, in classrooms without walls. Fellow Paul said, “I feel so great. I wake up. Have a gorgeous breakfast. Go to yoga in the forest. I learn so much all day. I’m not distracted by anything. It’s really energizing. In Philly I have a hard time disconnecting. Feeling everyone’s positive energy reenergizes me.”

What were we doing at this sustainable farm under the cloud of an active volcano?

As I’ve heard our fearless leader Dr. Frumkin explain, one does not do one’s best thinking eating rubber chicken at an airport hotel at a conference in what could be any city on the planet. Breaking our routines of work, daily ritual, communication, and access to our devices, and coming out of our comfort zone, allows us to reflect on our lives and dream big for the future.

And Rancho Margot provides a powerful living example for our students wondering how to integrate social impact in their daily lives including financial issues. The founder Juan Sostheim explained, “My generation thought we’d inherited the earth. But we just borrowed it from you. And we’ve driven it to bankruptcy. The most important thing you can do is say no to the typical consumer attitudes, take stock of the things that are really important, and figure out how to promote their development.” Don Juan’s approach to this problem, as he saw it, was to build a life for himself and his family that he was proud of and that fostered a deep connection with the planet. Staying at Rancho Margot, we hoped that our students would consider how they might forge their own paths, instead of choosing one of the paths to burnout and disconnection that high achievers like them are typically offered.


Fellows spent their days honing their creativity, developing their design skills, strategic planning for their prototypes, and building community.

Kaveh kicked us off with a guided meditation. We welcomed stillness and listened to the sound of the forest. We heard the rain, birds, the rushing of a nearby stream, and the sound of our own breath. With our intentions set, we were off.

Recognizing that creativity flourishes in groups when individuals in those groups are happy, having fun, and have a range of diverse perspectives, Scott Sherman helped fellows view creativity as a learned skill, a muscle that requires development. Through laughter and play, we learned to honor, encourage, and build on each other’s wild ideas, practicing intentional listening and making our peers look good. We also practiced acknowledging the humanity in ourselves by productively and cheerfully confronting, learning from, and moving past our own failures. Later, Don Juan agreed with this approach. “My definition of entrepreneur is going from failure to failure with renewed optimism. It’s about attitude.”

Fellows learned Design Thinking from Gray Garmon. Understanding design as an approach that puts human needs and behaviors first (per Don Norman), or as a series of decisions that leads to an improved experience (per Gray Garmon and Kate Canales), Gray offered a method to ground our work in empathy and to develop ideas collaboratively with the people we care about. We learned to conduct interviews to discover instead of to validate our hunches and that “the rapid prototyping process is to maximize learning and minimize assumptions.” He advised, “You are always better off doing something rather than nothing.”


We applied these lessons immediately, undertaking in teams a superfast design process to understand and propose how the folks at Rancho Margot might encourage their guests to return home with the principles and practices of environmental sustainability. Don Juan reminded the students about the tradeoffs of being an outsider coming into a community to “solve” a problem. He reminded us that our beneficiaries may lack the distance to identify their own problems, while outsider status might afford easy diagnosis and a solution may be immediately apparent. But if those community members are not convinced on both the problem and the solution, and observe continuous progress, no outsider or insider will solve anything.

Don Juan’s son Jeremy acted as an informant for the exercise and evaluated the proposals. “I know [Rancho Margot] so well and my mind is filled with constraints, so I shut down new ideas quickly. But there were some wonderful ideas there. That was some beautiful work.” Two other Rancho staff agreed that some of the students’ ideas were actionable and directly aligned with Rancho’s priorities. Good practice!

Thinking about their own social impact goals, fellows then got a crash course in articulating their vision and making it happen. They workshopped how they might understand their communities and the problems that drive their work and how to communicate their idea with others. Afterwards, fellow Jake said, “Today has been the most productive day of my life.”

Scottie and Aaron fostered community among the fellows and invited them to share their stories and articulate their passions. Witnessing the students develop and verbalize their vision statements, Jeremy said, “I felt the greatest buildup of potential energy I’ve ever experienced. I would compare it to a herd of horses getting ready to go somewhere.” Coming from someone who herds horses and buffalo for a living, this is a compliment I hope the fellows are proud of and aspire to live up to.

Thrilled with the students’ progress, Gray told them, “You guys brought the weather. Even though it was raining all day, it’s been beautiful among you.” We couldn’t agree more. The students gone, the staff hiked through the inky night up the ridge, where everything was covered in the luminescent violet silver light of the moon and an explosion of bright stars.

Back at Penn, the students dove into their spring semester. Amid the pull of classes, extracurriculars, and socializing, we’ll meet monthly to recapture that space for reflection, learning and community, as they continue to develop their social impact ideas by understanding their customers, ideating new ideas and prototyping solutions. We’ll keep you posted on the progress! View the event photo gallery here.