As a Stanford University Innovation Fellow, Zahin Mahbuba ’22 Hopes to Impact Hollins and Beyond for Years to Come

Zahin Mahbuba '22

Zahin Mahbuba ’22 is passionate about becoming a force for building experiential and entrepreneurial learning in the educational programs of developing nations. This academic year, the international studies major and economics minor from Bangladesh is participating in a Stanford University program that she hopes will help her in establishing a basis for achieving that goal, while at the same time promoting initiatives for students at Hollins.

Mahbuba is one of 251 students from 65 institutions of higher learning in 15 countries to be named University Innovation Fellows (UIF) for 2021-22. The program, run by Stanford’s  Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school), empowers students to become agents of change at their schools. These student leaders create opportunities to help their peers build the creative confidence, agency, and entrepreneurial mindset needed to address global challenges. Fellows create student innovation spaces, start entrepreneurship organizations, facilitate experiential workshops, and work with faculty and administrators to develop new courses. They serve as advocates for lasting institutional change with academic leaders, lending the much-needed student voice to the conversations about the future of higher education.

“The new fellows are designing experiences that help all students learn skills and mindsets necessary to navigate these uncertain times and to shape the future they want to see,” said UIF co-director Humera Fasihuddin. “They are giving back to their school communities, and at the same time, they’re learning strategies that will help them serve as leaders in their careers after graduation.”

During her first two years at Hollins, Mahbuba worked closely with Karen Messer-Bourgoin, who previously served as professor of practice in business at Hollins. “She helped me with all my entrepreneurial endeavors,” Mahbuba said. She learned about UIF from Alyssa Martina, director of Elon University’s Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, whom she got to know when Hollins took part in the Elon University Innovation Challenge.

When Mahbuba was presented this summer with Hollins’ first-ever Changemaker Award, participation in UIF became financially attainable. The honor includes a $5,500 grant, made possible by an anonymous donor. “It’s the donor’s belief that the world’s biggest and most difficult problems can be solved by embracing an entrepreneurial mindset and by working diligently to affect change in areas where innovation is needed most,” Mahbuba stated. When deciding how to use the award, she said her overarching goal was that “I didn’t want it to be an experience for myself. I wanted to leave a legacy on which students could embark.”

With Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtney Chenette as her faculty sponsor, Mahbuba embarked on completing UIF’s rigorous application process. “I answered questions about what innovation means to me, what resources would I acquire to build upon the entrepreneurial ecosystem on our campus if the president gave me a blank check, and even what three superpowers I wanted. I made a video where I talked about what excites me. Professor Chenette contributed to my application by describing what entrepreneurship means at Hollins, and I had to get recommendation letters from other faculty.”

As a UIF candidate, Mahbuba was then required to complete a four-week training program remotely this fall. Guided by Joshua Cadorette, a Stanford UIF mentor, she learned “how you can build stuff, how you gather resources, get people on board, things like that.” In collaboration with Chenette, she is spending the next several months at Hollins engaged in a project she conceptualized herself.

“I’m focusing on immigrant populations and refugees and their take on entrepreneurship,” Mahbuba explained. “When refugees are forced to migrate, they often come to America or other Western countries. English is not their first language, and they don’t have a lot of documentation to look for work. They end up becoming entrepreneurs, and I love that innovative mindset. I want to take that idea and make experiential learning opportunities for our students: How can you can create things in your environment and ecosystem that don’t exist yet, but you know should be there? It doesn’t even have to be a device – it could a change in policy.”

During her fellowship, Mahbuba is engaging in a design-thinking framework that is also the focus of “Sustainability and Social Innovation,” a Hollins first-year seminar for which she serves as a student success leader. “Exposing our new students to that is going to be a game changer,” she said. “It’s real, meaningful work, and also has value to one’s knowledge and skills.”

Mahbuba’s fellowship will culminate in March 2022, when she travels to California to spend ten days working with Stanford’s d.school and Silicon Valley startups. “You get exposed to the entrepreneurial ecosystem and connect with people who are actually working on projects,” she said.

As Hollins’ first participant in UIF, Mahbuba is a pioneer for future Hollins students who wish to pursue the program. In fact, cohorts usually include up to seven fellows from a particular college or university in a given year. “I’m really excited to be a part of that,” she noted, “and I’m sure students will be thrilled to get the opportunity to work with Stanford and access their resources.”

Next spring, Mahbuba will graduate after three years at Hollins. She is exploring Ph.D. programs in higher education policy and education reform. “Working with Stanford’s d.school can offer so many ideas on how I can make that structure work for me. When you talk about higher education and policy reform, this will give me a unique mindset and a set of skills.”

Above all, Mahbuba is committed to developing ways to positively impact communities globally whenever possible, especially in regard to young people. “I can’t talk about social innovation enough and why it’s so crucial in moving youth forward. They’re going to be the world’s changemakers. This is something I hope to build on and maybe take it back to Bangladesh, where I can start my own university fellowship program.”