The insider's guide to the Jerome Fisher Program at the University of Pennsylvania

Impact and Empathy: Unexpected Tools to Entrepreneurship

Last January, I was fortunate to participate in the 2016 Penn Impact Lab (PIL) in Rancho Margot, Costa Rica. This week-long program focused on developing leadership and design thinking, fostering a community for early-stage social entrepreneurship. Over twenty of us, both undergraduate and graduate students, came from a variety of fields and backgrounds. When we arrived we were mostly strangers, but we left as a bonded community. We experienced compassion and were left with skills and relationships that widened our perspective on both ourselves and the causes we cared about.

paul-pil-experience-in-crSponsored by School of Social Policy and The Center for Social Impact Strategy, the program took place at a 100% carbon-emission-free eco-lodge in Costa Rica.  At the lodge, we participated in hands-on workshops such as a design-thinking experience around prototyping shoes for our fellow participants’ needs and asking better questions to identify other’s pain points. We learned to evaluate mission statements and succinctly convey a clear purpose for our venture ideas. Alongside these useful entrepreneurial skills, there was a great amount of personal development through our relations with others.

There was an almost surreal quality to the peer-to-peer interactions. Introductory hugs instead of handshakes grew to intimate conversations and increasing vulnerability. Listening to the depth of my peer’s experiences was eye-opening and humbling. Many of our workshops began with group meditation where we found peace in introspection. Numerous team-building exercises encouraged us to dance together, reflect, and express ourselves as openly as we could. It was exhilarating!  One memorable group exercise was gaze silently into the eyes of someone for four minutes, where we learned to find comfort in foreign eyes. From these contemplative, intentional experiences, we found ourselves refreshed physically and mentally.

The strong sense of belonging and community helped us to partake in one of our culminating events: “storytelling.” Storytelling involved sharing a five-minute life-story centralized around a few events, people, or other important things in our lives. Wrestling with and filtering out which experiences defined us was hard at times, but in telling our stories, we each discovered more about what we care for and why we care.

Empathy was a primary theme throughout the experience and consciousness of it made our experience an extraordinary one. It is amazing how encouraging, honest, and open a community can be and galvanizing to see people working towards facets of positive change in our world.

Paul Lou is a member of the Class of 2018 majoring in computer science and concentrating in statistics. He is continually exploring all the opportunities Penn and M&T have to offer and feels lucky to be part of the supportive M&T community.

 To find out more about the Penn Impact Lab and how you can participate, visit

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