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A Student’s Experience with the Germination Project

Members of the Germination Project gather for a group photo. Photo Credit: Monica Volodarsky (276)

The limit is four hundred and fifty people.

The capacity of the Philadelphia Union League’s Lincoln Hall might be four hundred and fifty, but I know that there are no fewer than six hundred individuals packed in the next room, waiting expectantly. The Germination Project Draft Day Gala is just about to begin, and the air is alight with electricity. The people packed in the great ballroom adjoining our small alcove are some of the most important professionals in Philadelphia, and they are here to see the future leaders of our city. By some turn of fate, I am among the fifteen chosen.

I think back to four months ago when I applied to the Germination Project, a program which was described to us as an incubator for Philadelphia’s next generation of leaders. Founded by Ajay Raju, the CEO of Dilworth Paxson LLP, the Germination Project was intended to be a “fifty year love letter” to the city. Ten schools were selected in the Greater Philadelphia region to partake in the Germination Project, each nominating up to three of their brightest sophomores for admission to the program.

After undergoing an intense selection process in Central High School, Thomas Van Dean, Trang Lam, and I sent in applications to the Germination Project, and were invited to the Dilworth Paxson offices in order to be interviewed. A few weeks after our atypical interviews, it was revealed, to our astonishment, that all three of us were admitted into the program. Now, the three of us and twelve other Student Fellows were anxiously waiting to be officially declared the 2015 Student Leadership Class.

Senator Robert P. Casey takes the stage and the crowd goes wild. I struggle not to pace back and forth as my mind races. I think of Philadelphia, as it is, now. I think of all of my friends and family that have left the city in search of something more and of the biases, some justified, that have become associated with Philadelphia. I love Philly, but I am aware of the problems that plague it. For a moment, I am intimidated by the responsibility that will be placed upon us to improve the civic future of our city.

I am snapped into the present as another Germination Fellow approaches me. I do not

remember her name —momentarily, I think I forget mine, as well. But I look into her earnest eyes and I know that our destinies are intertwined; we were both chosen for something greater than ourselves.

She points at my clutch and tells me that she’ll hold it for me when I go up. I thank her profusely, my stomach churning as I think about being thrust into the expectant crowd, all foreboding thoughts quickly forgotten. The first name is called, and unconsciously we Fellows line up. We slap each other on the back, smile at the next person up, offer words of reassurance. We find unity in the midst of happy chaos.

Before I notice it, my fellows are nudging me forward. I am next, and suddenly all I can think of is whether I’ll be able to make it to the stage without tripping over my own feet. Eric Berkowitz, the Project Manager for the Germination Project, leans over and asks me if I know who will be  representing me. I’ve seen the name on the list.  “David Lipson?” I ask, straining to be heard over the excitement. “Yes”, he tells me, “That’s the President of Philadelphia Magazine. You should talk to him after the event”. My breath catches in my throat, and very clearly I hear my name being called.

I do not remember walking to the stage, but suddenly I am there, holding a custom 76ers jersey  with my last name on it; a name that my father and his father wore, a name from a land thousands of miles away, a name that nobody had ever thought would be heard in the ballroom of the Union League. As these thoughts rush to me, time stops. The flash of cameras still, and I can only dimly register the brouhaha all around me. Instead, I am transported, fifty years into the future, to a Philadelphia brimming with opportunities and talent, a mecca of success.

Questions of immense weight flood my mind. How will I have contributed to this version of  Philadelphia? What will I, and my fellows, have to do to make this future a reality? What will the next class do, after and along with us? And, suddenly, the purpose of the Germination Project becomes very clear. It was founded to erase the idea that the city remaining after us would be one of poverty, desolation, and crime. The Germination Project has given us the strength to see Philadelphia as it could be, and as we are obligated to make it be. Suddenly, I am no longer afraid of the challenges that will present themselves as we move forward. Instead, a fervent desire to take action overcomes me. I blink, and I am back in the Gala. The camera flashes in quick succession, blinding me; but neither it, nor anything else, is able to wipe that vision from my mind’s eye.

Fast forward three months, to the Wharton Leadership Bootcamp, where the electricity of the Gala had been focused and directed in all of us. Within two weeks, we grew as a class and a project, developing a true understanding of leadership and social service. The Bootcamp connected us with many of the current leaders of Philadelphia, such as Vik Dewan, President of the Philadelphia Zoo, and Scott O’Neil, the CEO of the 76ers. Primarily, however, the Wharton experience helped us discover qualities within ourselves that hadn’t been explored before, allowing us to gain confidence in ourselves and in our talents. We learned everything from Design Thinking to the power of vulnerability. In four days, we created a business idea that we pitched to a panel of judges; an idea which, for many of us, was a seed that we planted into the fertile plot of our future.

Armed with a growing desire to contribute to our communities, we Fellows began to do

grassroots work in Philadelphia. While the city was bristling with anticipation for Pope Francis, my fellows and I, as well as two hundred other volunteers, came to the aid of Antonia Pantoja Charter School. In just six hours, we erected a playground for the North Philly students, complete with an outdoor classroom and basketball court. Truthfully, titles are nice, but this was what the Germination Project was about.

Communicating with and working alongside fellow Philadelphians for the betterment of our community was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Looking into the hopeful eyes of parents and hearing the ecstatic squeals of students spurred us forward, and watching that ribbon being cut in the end made all of our work worthwhile. However, seeing that playground up did little to quench my desire to serve; in fact, a lesson that I’ve learned from the Germination Project is that once you begin to invest in your community, there is no limit to how much you can do, no status quo that you can fulfill. Instead, there is only the conviction that you can, and will, do more.

Nevertheless, to do better we must know better. That is why, recently, the Germination Fellows were given the opportunity to visit the New York Stock Exchange. Thanks to the Germination Project team and the Hersha Hospitality Trust, the Fellows were able to expand their knowledge of finance and the capital markets right on the floor of the NYSE. Speaking with the traders and stockbrokers on duty, we Fellows were able to understand the importance of constant innovation and reinvention; the New York Stock Exchange, after the 1980s, had a technological revolution which completely transformed how it operates.

Moreover, we were able to gauge the significance of financial literacy, a major area of concern in Philadelphia. Although very enlightening, our tour of the NYSE did more than just increase our knowledge; it was a once in a lifetime experience that opened our eyes to what paths are available to us should we seek to pursue them.

As to what’s next, Ajay Raju has developed countless other opportunities for his Fellows, including collaboration with Christie’s Auction House in the near future. Likewise, a focus is put upon the next class of Germination Fellows, which will be inaugurated into the project during the second Draft Day Gala in the spring of 2016.  When asked for advice for the next class, Trang Lam, a Germination Fellow from Central High School, said, “From experience, a piece of advice would be to let all doubts fly away about applying for the GP, and just do it! I was so nervous to apply, but looking back that one decision has changed the course of my life.” It is indisputable that the Germination Project is a game changer, both for the Germination Fellows and Philadelphia.  To those willing to take the leap and apply: I’d like to challenge you to imagine our city, fifty years from now, as I did during the Draft Day Gala, and ask yourself, “How will I have contributed to this version of Philadelphia?”


Monica Volodarsky (276)
Staff Writer

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