Jessica Menold shows up at Local Whiskey after a long workday and pulls a granola bar out of her bag. “I’ve led meetings all day. This is my first chance to eat!” she laughs. “I’m busy. But I never seem to mind,” she continues, fast paced and engaged. There’s urgency to Menold. She isn’t waiting for tomorrow for the big work to come. She wants to be part of things happening today, things that will have social impact for years.
By most accounts, Menold has been a wildly successful graduate student and innovator in State College. Her Ph.D. will be in engineering design, a subset of mechanical engineering. Her specialty is new product development, specifically prototyping that leads to better frameworks and better product and people outcomes.
“I want to know how this structure and method impacts the individual confidence and design skills and risk aversion.” It’s an unusual focus in M.E., but she makes it work in dynamic ways. She does not follow the mold. She’s never approached grad school as something to survive. Instead, she has taken her years at Penn State as an opportunity to do meaningful work now.
Menold’s list of successful social impact experiments is long — including Amparo, a startup for prosthetic limb innovations in developing economies, and most recently BrightBox, a Penn State Summer Founders program startup for an educational design tool to be used in refugee camps.
But what activated her to become a social impact innovator?
“State College flipped the switch on my awareness,” she says. “I would have never had such a beautiful integration anywhere else. Here, it happened almost unconsciously.”
While beginnings can be hard to pinpoint, Menold identified two activators. The first was having great academic advisors: Tim Simpson and Kathryn Jablokow. At every step of the way, they supported Menold in her unconventional exploration of the local ecosystems and international research.
The second factor was an invitation to New Leaf Initiative. Jared Yarnall-Shane, a fellow M.E. student and (at that time) part of the Green Towers cohort, was the first to invite her to check out the space. “You don’t know that you’re starting to hang out with more innovative people, and suddenly you are fully a part of a beautiful community of go-getters with a lot of impact,” she says.
Supportive third spaces (after the “first” space of home and “second” space of work) like New Leaf become activators for talented, smart and caring individuals, especially when combined with meaningful and holistic academic support.
“I got to follow my curiosity,” Menold says. Curiosity is a good word to describe her. Everything is an experiment to her, something to try and see where it goes. “For an open person, ready to fail and try, State College is perfect. The great support system helps you see what is working and not working and keep trying until something sticks.” And Menold’s experiments in State College have paid off in the local community, the most immediately impactful one being Empathink, a social impact organization that brings women together to solve tough problems with deep empathy and strong thinking.
“I saw that the women around me in our local innovative ecosystems were gravitating to a human focus in their work; they were not drawn to tech and wanting to make millions of dollars.” The impact was local and measurable. The very first Empathink event helped design an addition to the Women’s Resource Center building. One participant even joined the board of the nonprofit in response to her experience that day.
A very reasonable question is this: How does she do it all? She laughs. “I really do best when I’m super busy.” Part of it, she says, is drawing on her need for alternate, diverse types of creativity. She does her best problem solving as she draws from two unrelated fields and finds the overlap. “I get the most inspiration in disparate spaces.” This means she can often hit two (or three!) birds with one stone. “And I literally use my entire life for my graduate research.”
Now, Menold is moving toward an interesting though uncertain future. Much of her public work has quieted so she can focus on writing her dissertation. Within six months, she will graduate and move into the world. She’s considering her options between various startups and an interest in academia for the long term. What she does know is that she wants to live in communities with the dynamic she discovered here.
“I can’t help it,” she says. “I want to be part of all the good stories happening around me.”
Dana Ray is a wordsmith, community storyteller and idea wrangler. She works as a thinker/doer at Rowland Creative, a strategic marketing and design agency in State College.