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Leading through a human-first lens: Meet social innovator Taewee Kahrs '16

Two women, one in a black suit and another in a blue suit and white headscarf smile and hug each other.

Taewee Kahrs (left) hugs UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and World Champion Poet, Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud (right). Photo by MIT Solve.

At 18 years old, Taewee Kahrs ’16 believed she’d pursue a career in dermatology. When she attended the Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration (SOAR) day at UW–Madison, she was prepared to learn more about the pre-med degree track, but she quickly changed her mind after a SOAR representative told her about the Community & Nonprofit Leadership (CNPL) program at the School of Human Ecology.

Young woman with long, dark brown hair wearing red lipstick and a teal collared shirt.
Taewee Kahrs, Community & Nonprofit Leadership ’16. Photo by Sarah Rose Smiley.

“I was like ‘Great! I’m doing that major, it sounds perfect,’” Taewee says. That day she toured Nancy Nicholas Hall and formed an instantaneous connection with the school.

“It felt like a community and home for me,” Taewee says. “The school was gorgeous and there was so much creativity and color around and many warm welcomes.”

Dean Soyeon Shim, greeted Taewee on the tour and said her door was always open. Wasting no time, Taewee took Dean Shim up on that offer and asked for her guidance, eager to join the Human Ecology community.

“Dean Shim is an amazing person,” Taewee said. “She connected me with other incredible and diverse women who ended up becoming my mentors and professors during my studies.”

Taewee’s tenacity to make connections only continued to grow throughout her four years in the CNPL program and ever since she graduated in 2016. After earning her master’s in Global  Health Research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands and completing training as a full-spectrum doula, Taewee returned to the U.S. in 2022 to join MIT Solve, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) nonprofit initiative. As MIT Solve’s Health Community Officer, Taewee leads with social innovation and human-centered approaches to create meaningful impact—all of which were cornerstones of her education at the School of Human Ecology.

Advancing global change through community building

MIT Solve recognizes that there’s amazing talent and ingenuity around the world, but access to resources and opportunities to put ideas into motion remain incredibly inequitable. The nonprofit seeks to energize, support and nurture innovation. Taewee approaches this pursuit through community building, or what she likes to call “ecosystem building” in the form of global innovator challenges.

Two women, one in a white suit and another in a blue, pinstriped collared shirt hug and smile at the camera during an event.
Taewee Kahrs (right) hugs Kate Onyejekwe (left), a judge within MIT Solve’s 2022/2023 Health Challenge Leadership Group and Director of John Snow’s International Division. Photo by MIT Solve.

Working collaboratively with teammates focused on climate, economic prosperity, learning, Indigenous communities and global health to run open innovation competitions, Taewee helps determine the challenge themes that often focus on human-centered, design-thinking topics. As a relationship manager to an annual cohort of six to eight global innovators, Taewee helps facilitate connection and support opportunities.

“My job is to deeply understand the global innovators, their challenges, their needs and also their strengths,” Taewee says. “We break down silos together and find where there are bridges; where there can be collaboration and connection.”

Leading with a human-first approach

Taking initiative and being open to new opportunities are just a few lessons from the School of Human Ecology that Taewee carries into her work today. Similar to Dean Shim’s open-door policy, Taewee leaves her door and email inbox open—paying it forward by helping global innovators make connections with mentors and peers.

“Working through a human-centered lens at the School of Human Ecology was a big lightbulb moment for me,” Taewee says. “Having a starting point of empathy and compassion makes so much sense. I’ve been told often outside of Human Ecology that there’s no place for emotion in science or the business world, and that made me curious to find people and workplaces that care about relationship building beyond a transactional approach.”

Taewee credits many School of Human Ecology faculty, instructors and staff for helping her become the impact-minded human ecologist she is today. The late Allison Murray was an “advisor, confidant and cheerleader from day one” who helped Taewee dream big and create an interdisciplinary educational path that was unique to her goals. Mentorship with Distinguished Teaching Faculty Lori DiPrete Brown in the global health research space inspired Taewee to pursue a master’s in research. Associate Professor Jennifer Gaddis and Assistant Professor Carolina Sarmiento taught Taewee about tactical research methodology and the framework in approaching community-based research. Teaching Faculty Lesley Sager’s design thinking class taught Taewee that it’s okay to fail fast and hard and to keep building to be better.

And then there was Teaching Faculty Michael Maguire, whose courses on purpose solidified many truths for Taewee in her career, particularly leading with kindness and that your peers are your greatest resource.

“I am grateful to have had all these amazing people who taught me with respect and who also saw me as someone who was worth learning from,” Taewee says.

Social innovators of today and beyond

When asked about advice to give to prospective and current CNPL students who want to jump into the world as social innovation leaders, Taewee thinks carefully and responds passionately.

Three woman stand close together and smile for a photo while overlooking Boston's Charles River. The Boston skyline is behind them and bright green trees appear in the foreground.
Taewee Kahrs (center) poses with MIT Solve colleagues and friends, Ellie Moriearty (left) and Katie Morgan (right). Photo by Taewee Kahrs.

Taking the initiative—something as simple as walking through an open door and receiving the offer to connect made a huge difference for Taewee. She believes everyone should seek out connection, even if it’s not class related.

“The openness and willingness to talk and learn from professors and faculty within the Human Ecology community is unlike any academic institution I’ve been a part of,” Taewee says.

Nothing in Taewee’s educational or career journey has been linear. So, when it comes to figuring out a career focus or passion, she understands that it’s not always easy to picture where you’re headed, and that’s OK.

“There’s a whole menu of life out there and you’re going to be able to connect the dots that make the most sense to you,” Taewee says. “If you’re passionate about community, making connections, and leading through a human-first lens, but unsure of where to start, come to the School of Human Ecology. That’s where the dreamers, thinkers and doers are!”