NYU Wagner Capstone: The Beginning of a Lifelong Journey From Fieldwork in Mozambique to a Career in Social Entrepreneurship
For many of us, the idea of making a difference in the world through public service can seem daunting. The problems we face are often complex, multifaceted, and seemingly intractable. Yet for NYU Wagner alumna Alicia Polak (MPA 2001), this challenge was not only a call to action, but an opportunity to make a lasting impact and address the needs of an organization. Through NYU Wagner’s Capstone Program, Alicia was able to achieve what so many in the Wagner community go on to do—make a lasting impact for the public good and enhance the effectiveness of a partner organization.
What is the Capstone Program?
NYU Wagner's Capstone program pairs client organizations with teams of dedicated graduate students who apply their analytical and problem-solving skills to solve complex challenges in the fields of urban planning and public and nonprofit management and policy. Through quantitative and qualitative research and rigorous analysis, students work in tandem with experienced professionals to conduct evaluations and lead projects that present new insights and recommendations for their clients.
For Alicia Polak, the Capstone Program was a transformative experience that not only strengthened her skillsets but also provided service to an organization with lasting impact. Alicia's enthusiasm for social impact started when she enrolled in NYU Wagner's Master of Public Administration program, where she developed a passion for international development policy. She soon discovered that Capstone would provide her the opportunity to apply her coursework to real-world challenges in the field.
Field Work for the Freeplay Foundation in 2001
It was here that Alicia's journey began. In January 2001, the Capstone team traveled to Mozambique to work with a nonprofit social enterprise called the Freeplay Foundation, which provides technology solutions for off-grid communication. The team was commissioned to perform an impact evaluation on the use of Freeplay’s wind-up radios in the flood-affected areas of the country. These radios served as tools for humanitarian aid and were specifically built for vulnerable peoples affected by disaster. To support this effort, the General Board of Global Ministries as well as the Freeplay Foundation funded a large portion of 7,500 self-powering radios, which were distributed following the devastating floods in Mozambique in the Spring of 2000.
The Capstone team was dedicated to supporting their client and conducted a thorough analysis of areas that were of key importance to the organization, including the regions of Beira and Xai-Zia that had been acutely affected by the floods. The team conducted on-site evaluations of the radio’s effectiveness as an information dissemination tool, including its usefulness in sharing information about upcoming weather, day-to-day atmospheric weather changes, safety protocols for communities during flood events, food distribution access points, family member safety information, and humanitarian aid. Additionally, the Capstone team visited radio distribution sites and met with local officials to improve their understanding of the task at hand. The Wagner students’ commitment to providing high-quality research resulted in invaluable insights for the Freeplay Foundation, and ultimately contributed to the success of their mission.
Alicia’s Reflections 20+ Years Later
Reflecting on this experience, Alicia recalled how she wanted to be on the ground making a direct impact to help communities and enhance livelihood. Capstone presented an opportunity to engage in the multifaceted challenges of international nonprofits as well as apply the analytical and research skills she honed through her coursework at NYU Wagner. The roots of her future successes were nurtured by brilliant professors who helped her gain the skills necessary to benefit her Capstone client. These teachers included Roy Sparrow, who was working with Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence in the workplace, and Mary McBride, whose teachings were particularly impactful. Alicia also had the privilege of working with Angela Hendrix Terry who helped her forge forward and shape ideas for her future work. Thanks to the support and guidance of these esteemed professors, in combination with her previous internship at the United Nations, Alicia’s Wagner education and team collaboration proved to be invaluable assets for meeting Freeplay’s project goals and providing a solid foundation from which to launch a career in the public interest.
A Career of Sustained Engagement
Following the completion of her Capstone program and graduation from NYU, Alicia returned to her career in finance and then pivoted back to her public service roots to start a business in social entrepreneurship. In 2003, Alicia founded The Khayelitsha Cookie Company in Cape Town, South Africa with the aim to create employment opportunities for previously disadvantaged women from informal settlements of the greater Cape Town region. By providing meaningful job opportunities, Khayelitsha helps to foster financial independence and continuously creates employment opportunities for the most marginalized women and men in South Africa. Alicia's story is a testament to the transformative impact that the NYU Wagner Capstone Program can have on students and the organizations they support. Her work in social entrepreneurship is a reminder that there are many paths to making a difference in the world and shows that the most effective solutions often come from those who exhibit teamwork, quantitative and qualitative expertise, and a cutting-edge understanding of the nuances of public work.
If you work for an organization interested in becoming a future Capstone client, we encourage you to view our Capstone Client FAQs and submit a proposal for the 2023-24 academic year. As a Capstone client, you will be assigned a team of public service graduate students to help your organization tackle the critical challenge that you propose.
Alicia Polak is a social entrepreneur, advocate, and nonprofit strategist and mentor. Visit her website, Kreate Advisors, to get in touch and learn more about her work.