Paying mentorship forward

Q&A with social entrepreneurs and mentors Amrutha Nandam and Jaki Bonilla

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February 22, 2021
By Shellie Edge, Innovate Carolina

Across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, you find Tar Heels helping Tar Heels. Whether its students helping students, faculty helping students or vice versa, the Carolina community is always ready to lend a hand, especially when it comes to entrepreneurial mentorship. 

Innovate Carolina recently spoke with Amrutha Nandam, a Carolina undergraduate student and founder of Special Needs Special People (SNSP), and Jaki Bonilla, social innovation initiatives coordinator with student affairs at the UNC Campus Y

Bonilla, a Carolina alumna, first met Nandam when she was still in high school. That’s where she saw the infectious spark of energy that Nandam infuses into everything she does. Now in her second year at the University, Nandam is using her social innovation know-how and the mentorship she’s received at Carolina to teach people how to embrace and champion diversity, while reducing the bullying that students with accessibility differences face. 

Through it all, Bonilla and Nandam continue to share a special mentor-mentee bond. And Nandam is paying that mentorship forward as she now hosts SNSP programming in local schools, including her former elementary school. We wanted to know more about their collaboration, how they worked together and how mentorship can launch more than just ventures. 

Amrutha, tell us about Special Needs Special People, your mission and what you are trying to accomplish. 

Special Needs Special People (SNSP) is a UNC Campus Y Social Venture that raises awareness about accessibility differences and advocates for inclusion. Our mission is to start a conversation inside the classroom to give students the tools to build a more understanding and inclusive world for people with accessibility differences. Along with talking to students, we seek to create an online atmosphere that empowers people of all abilities with motivational quotes, stories of role models with accessibility differences, and provide resources that might help our community. Through our work, we hope to reduce the bullying that people (specifically students) with accessibility differences face and teach people to embrace and champion diversity.

Amrutha, what challenges did you face? Why did you become involved with CUBE 6.0 and the Campus Y? 

The first time I met Jaki, I immediately realized that CUBE and Campus Y are diverse communities where social innovators come together to make a wider difference. I wanted to be a part of the social change made at Campus Y, which is why from the moment I heard of CUBE, I dreamed of SNSP being a Campus Y social venture. I knew that while working together with my fellow student incubators to achieve a more inclusive world, SNSP and I would grow through learning from them. 

Amrutha Nandam Profile Picture
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“Members of the Campus Y and CUBE encourage any type of impact you desire to make and will be there for you every step of the way. Joining the Innovate Carolina community will help you realize your vision, and you will grow in ways you would never imagine.”
Amrutha Nandam

Jaki, tell us about your role as a mentor for students participating in CUBE and Campus Y.

Well, first of all, I don’t think of myself as a mentor for them. I think they are mentors for me. It’s maybe what keeps drawing me to work at the Campus Y. Our students are pretty amazing! I wish more people got to know them in this way. I always share with my family that I become much more open-minded because of them. They challenge me to be a better innovator.

Jaki, most people don’t know that you have known Amrutha since her high school days. What’s it like to see a student grow, both as an entrepreneur and as a person? 

It’s pretty incredible to see the young potential from the beginning. I get excited when I can see this through my first interaction with the student. Before becoming the program manager for CUBE, I led the Global Gap Year Fellowship at UNC. One of my favorite things about being part of GGYF was seeing this potential and guiding them in realizing it. Amrutha reminds me so much of my previous students, but I also see something more. She’s fantastic, and I know I am just one mentor in her long journey as a social entrepreneur. 

Amrutha, how did your involvement in CUBE benefit you as a student and benefit Special Needs Special People?

I am beyond fortunate to be part of CUBE and so thankful to grow alongside committed social incubators and under the guidance of such supportive mentors like Jaki and Melissa Carrier. I have learned so much from students further down their entrepreneurial paths, and they inspire me each and every day to push myself to pursue my dreams for SNSP, even in the face of challenges. The CUBE community has made me more confident as a person and as an entrepreneur, and I cannot thank them enough for all they have done for me.

Jaki, how do student ventures like Amrutha’s benefit mentors as well? 

Amrutha’s life experiences shape so much of the work she is doing. This requires that I let her be the driver of her innovation and challenges me not to think that I have all the right answers.

Amrutha, would you recommend CUBE and Campus Y to other students? Why?

Yes, I would recommend CUBE and Campus Y to any person seeking to make a difference for the greater good without a single doubt! Members of the Campus Y and CUBE encourage any type of impact you desire to make and will be there for you every step of the way. Joining the Innovate Carolina community will help you realize your vision, and you will grow in ways you would never imagine.

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“This work is not easy, and I think we can all understand it from different perspectives. Here we are not defined by majors or years of study, but rather the work we choose to do.”
Jaki Bonilla

Jaki, for any students hesitating or unaware of the benefits to participating in CUBE and Campus Y, what would you tell them? 

Come and join us! Some of the best conversations on campus happen in this group. Our cohort model will help you think through some of the things you are facing in launching your venture, and you will find a support group that will cheer you along the way. This work is not easy, and I think we can all understand it from different perspectives. Here we are not defined by majors or years of study but rather the work we choose to do.

Jaki, can you describe your experience mentoring student entrepreneurs through the 1789 student innovation community – especially in our new virtual environment? 

Well, I think my colleague, Melissa Carrier, emphasizes the need to create pathways for our students to CUBE. I think of 1789 as one of those. I enjoy being a part of the community Kimi is starting at UNC. I think it’s pretty impressive, and I am happy to be there supporting students who are thinking about social impact. My conversations, even though virtually with students, are the best I’ve had.

Amrutha, do you think you’d consider reaching back out again to Jaki and other entrepreneurial advisors for advice in the future? Why?

Absolutely! I have so much to learn from Jaki and Melissa and their social entrepreneurial journeys. With their on-the-ground experiences and expertise, they are two of the best mentors one could have. They always give me such thoughtful advice, and whenever I have a question or when I am trying to work through an idea for SNSP, they are my first go-to people. I owe so much of what Special Needs Special People is to Jaki and Melissa and know they will always be key members of the SNSP community.

Amrutha, what will define success for Special Needs Special People?
When I talk to schools, I ask students what they can do to make this a more inclusive world for people with accessibility differences. The ideas that these young minds come up with define success for Special Needs Special People. At SNSP, we aim to teach students about accessibility differences and give them the tools to construct a more inclusive society. However, it is ultimately up to them to create that community. When they contribute these wonderful ideas, it is clear how much they care about making a difference, and they always make me feel so proud. I know these students will create a kinder world for people with accessibility differences and for folks from all walks of life.