Elsa Sze

Harvard Kennedy School

How did you get started in the Harvard Innovation Lab Ecosystem?

I’m what you might call an “accidental entrepreneur.” Agora started as an idea from the thesis I was writing for my joint degree program at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School — which was about the role that technology can play to modernize democracy.

While I had a lot of fun analyzing the problem, I soon noticed that I am much more passionate about creating a solution for this problem; namely, building a platform to fundamentally disrupt democracy and give people a voice.

I had always thought of the i-lab as the cradle of innovation at Harvard, and I soon learned that it was a stimulating, supportive community as well. Through the encouragement of the i-lab, I was able to take Agora from my thesis topic to an impactful civic technology venture, hosting discussions from around the world. I am so thankful for the i-lab’s Venture Incubation Program, especially for the connections built to fellow entrepreneurs. And, the i-lab’s idea-clad walls continue to inspire my team and me every day.

What’s the #1 resource you use most at the Harvard i-lab? Why is/was it so useful?

Through Agora’s time in the i-lab, I have had the opportunity to connect with a vast network of peers and advisors. Our i-lab friends have provided a diversity of perspectives and experiences that have challenged Team Agora to be better innovators and continue to develop our vision.

Whether we’re brainstorming together at 1 a.m. or eating pizza during First Fridays, we in the i-lab strive together, and we thrive together too. We support each other to take risks and ask the tough questions of each other that keep our ventures on task to match our visions.

I turned down a job offer from McKinsey to found a startup that can reimagine democracy in the twenty-first century – the i-lab community has made that choice a lot smoother.

What’s next for you and your venture?

Agora is continuously growing civic engagement, providing a network for people to discuss issues from the Syrian refugee crisis to the Massachusetts Charter Schools cap and more. We have recently partnered with Generation Citizen, the Boston Public Schools, and Boston City Councilors to provide increased engagement.

We’re really excited about the 2016 Elections, because of the momentum it would generate for citizens to get involved in issues they care about.

Agora is a ready solution for them to have their voices heard.

If you had to give another student one piece of advice to get the most out of the i-lab, what would it be?

Take advantage of everything the i-Lab has to offer!

From the fantastic people I already mentioned to the events put on by the wonderful staff, I’ve grown so much as both an entrepreneur and a person. Start-ups aren’t easy — it’s supposed to be hard — and being surrounded by the passion and drive of your fellow entrepreneurs is motivation to persevere unlike any other.

The i-lab connected me with people at different stages of the entrepreneurial process, all of whom played a part in getting Agora to where we are today. It was through these connections and their advice that my startup was able to recruit a great from the Harvard community.

Anything we missed? Feel free to wax poetic here…

Agora launched an online discussion about non-compete reform and brought over 100 entrepreneurs voices to Beacon Hill to advocate in the legislative process. Agora facilitated City Councilors Michelle Wu, Josh Zakim, and Nadeem Mazen’s broadening of their outreach by allowing them to connect with constituents who cannot attend hearings. Agora has allowed individuals in South Boston to voice their opinion on bus routes, residents in West Roxbury to voice their opinions on a gas pipeline, and residents from all over Boston to share their views on the housing needs of the City.

When I talk to people who are always excluded from the decision process or the conversation in the community, and I get to tell them: “This is not what it should be. This will change, we can change it together.” When I see their eyes light up with hope — This is my favorite thing.