Cristi Hegranes, founder of GPI, is one of the social justice prize winners and has been on campus this week interacting with Grinnell students. Emma Sinai-Yunker sat down with her for a Q&A about her experience with Grinnell and its community.

What is Global Press Institute and how does it work?
Global Press Institute (GPI) is a high-impact social venture that trains, employs and empowers women in developing countries to become professional journalists. After they go through our training program, their work is published on GPI newswire [and] disseminated locally in local language via a network of media outlets, governments, NGOs in country. Then we have also built a syndication platform where their news becomes for sale for mainstream media and corporate and educational publication opportunities. We really look at journalism as a development tool with the capacity to really spark social change.

Prize winners Cristi Hegranes, Jane Chen and Linus Liang pose with President Raynard Kington and Professor Eliza Willia (left) –photo by John Brady

What does this prize mean for you and GPI?
I have been so impressed with Grinnell, ever since I found out about the prize. I hope that people on this campus understand the degree to which this is just an extraordinary thing to do for young entrepreneurs, but also an extraordinary thing to do for the world. For me personally, this prize means hope. It means that as much as the world seems to gather around everything negative that’s happening there are places out there like Grinnell that recognize authentic social change and that recognize people who have dedicated their lives to creating that social change. So for me it means hope and I am very grateful. A lot of starting and international non-profit organizations is a struggle: you’re working for fundraising dollars, you’re working to build your program and to research budgets. It’s all these things not what you imagined when you imagined becoming an entrepreneur. A prize like this says keep going. It says move forward. People are grateful for what we’ve produced and are hopeful that we’ll continue to grow. As an organization, it means even more. GPI has always been big in impact, but just because our impact is big, our budget is not. The prize money is transformational for us. In fact, one of the reasons we’ve been able to think so big about 2013 and 2014 is because of this prize. It means more women employed and creating ethical, authentic, investigative journalism that is truly changing the world, but also changing these women’s lives. It means growth and it means positive development. It means getting us that much closer to sustainability.
How did it feel to win? How was that process?
The process was really intense actually. It’s a long period of time and so the amount of time between when you apply and the time you hear in May, a lot of time goes by. The people who nominated us for this are our development consultants. They found out about the prize when one of them was nominated last year and didn’t win, but came back and said “the people who won are these people who created something out of nothing that’s changing the world in incredible ways and you’re gonna win.” I said, “Please, I never win things like this.” There are so many grant competitions, everything is a contest these days for fundraising. As we went through the process and kept hearing that we’d moved on in the rounds, everyone said “See, we told you.” Melisa Chan [Prize Coordinator] emailed me later asking if I could talk on the phone just for a second, and really specified it would just be a second, so I thought “oh, this is the courtesy reject call.” It was this whole back and forth where I was convinced that it would be a “thanks for trying” kind of a thing. And then on that call on Tuesday morning, the President said “Cristi, hello.” And at that point I kind of got it. It was very exciting and I did not expect it whatsoever. You guys have been our lucky charm. We’ve already started to get a lot more recognition already, both in the amount of time where we couldn’t talk about it yet and then in the months since then as well.

Do you think you and Grinnell match well?
Absolutely. I founded the program when I was 25 and people invested in me very young. So I feel very strongly about investing in young people and I’m very excited about finding some opportunities for Grinnell students for innovation.

Are you considering furthering your connection with the school?
I’ve had some great conversations with students already, [newspaper staff] earlier, and also some students in classes who talked about opportunities they’d like to have or things that they’d like to see and something that has been very interesting to me is that people have been saying “we’re learning all these things about social justice and so many of us have ideas about organizations we want to create or we want to do, but we don’t have a practical understanding of how someone takes an idea to a program.” So I’ve been really impressed to see students thinking of fundraising and thinking about development. They’re thinking about all these really important questions which are very key. There really are a ton of internship opportunities, but beyond that I think there will be job opportunities. GPI is growing so much right now that we would certainly love to publish those opportunities here at Grinnell. So yes, I think there is definitely a collaboration going forward.

How has your interaction with students been?
I got to go to a couple classes and met with newspaper [staff] and had dinner with some students, and I’ve been really impressed with the student body. People’s descriptions of the academic rigor and seeing the things that they’re interested in has been very very impressive. I’ve been teaching at a university for the past two years and have been extremely impressed with the quality of thinking coming from Grinnell students and the degree to which social justice really seems to matter to the student body which some-times is a little more lip service. There really seems to be a genuine passion for social justice here.

Do you have any advice for students?
If there was anything I wish I’d had before I started GPI, it would be a broader range of experience with things like math and business and those have never been my forte, and I’ve had to learn on the fly. All of these things become so crucial to running an organization and a successful business. I wish I had the opportunity to diversify my knowledge base while I was in school. I would say to academically reach outside of your comfort zone and I think it’s very easy to know what you’re good at and stick with it. When you’re an entrepreneur you have to do everything, especially at the beginning.