NYU Alumni 2020 Changemakers of the Year

Celebrating Visionary Violets—as Voted on by Fellow Alumni—Who Have Worked to Better Our World

By Bridgette Austin (GAL ’04)

Maria Toler Velissaris (STERN ’09)
Founder and Managing Partner, SteelSky Ventures

After several years of mentoring and investing in female-led start-ups, Maria Toler Velissaris discovered that women’s health companies received less funding than their women-led counterparts in other sectors. That glaring funding gap drove her to launch SteelSky Ventures, one of the first venture capital funds solely focused on women’s health. The venture fund has funneled millions of dollars into tele-medicine, digital health applications, and other innovations, including technologies that help reduce maternal mortality rates and treat stigmatized reproductive health issues. In addition to giving diverse start-up communities access to diverse investors, SteelSky Ventures has funded eight women-led healthcare companies. A leading voice on gender equity investing and inclusive entrepreneurship, Velissaris plans to fund 30 more women’s health companies over the next three years.

Maria Toler Velissaris photo

Miriam Altman (WAG ’13) and Alexandra Meis (WAG ’13)
CEO and Cofounder, Kinvolved / Chief Product Officer and Cofounder, Kinvolved

With less than 20 percent of chronically absent students receiving their high school diploma, Miriam Altman and Alexandra Meis, cofounders of Kinvolved, spotted an opportunity to increase student achievement. Altman and Meis were still students at NYU Wagner when they launched and entered Kinvolved’s digital app for teachers and administrators, KiNVO, at a national policy competition—and won. Today, KiNVO tackles absenteeism through automated attendance-data-based nudges: two-way text messages that are translated into over 80 languages and serve 200,000+ stakeholders across 11 states. In 2019, school leaders, parents, and teachers exchanged 30 million messages via KiNVO, and 17 percent of those messages were translated into different languages during the 2019–2020 school year. To date, Kinvolved has raised $4 million and plans to extend the platform’s footprint to all 50 states.

Miriam Altman and Alexandra Meis photos

Judy Blume (STEINHARDT ’61)
Author

For half a century, Judy Blume has gone where many a parent is forbidden—deep into the anxious, yearning souls of millions of youth, with coming-of-age page-turners like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Blubber. Blume’s young adult novels were among the first to touch untouchable themes, propelling her to the forefront of a literary revolution. Her adult fiction found its disciples, too, topping the New York Times Best Sellers list multiple times. When conservative critics and groups decried and even banned Blume’s books in schools and libraries, the National Coalition Against Censorship stood in her corner and Blume herself became a staunch champion of free speech. She has addicted and comforted legions with her frank storytelling, selling more than 85 million copies worldwide. No slouch in the accolades department, she has received over 90 literary awards and was named a Library of Congress Living Legend.

Judy Blume photo

Robert Lee (STERN ’13)
Cofounder and CEO, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine

As a child, Robert Lee’s immigrant parents made sure that nothing on their kitchen table went to waste and often skipped meals themselves. That early life lesson led Lee to launch Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC) with cofounders Louisa Chen (CAS ’13) and Paul Sun (STERN ’11). The nonprofit serves as a crucial bridge between businesses looking to donate excess food and the hungry individuals who need it the most. Since its humble start in 2013, RLC has rescued over 4 million pounds of food and provided 1.7 million donated meals nationwide. On average, RLC engages hundreds of volunteers a day and 400 active volunteers a month who collect and drop off anywhere between 50- to 500-pound batches of leftover fare to local homeless shelters. The organization currently operates in 16 US cities and has partnered with over 150 establishments—from restaurants to cafeterias to catering companies—across the country.

Robert Lee photo

Liz Fanning (WAG ’97)
Founder and Executive Director, CorpsAfrica

Liz Fanning founded CorpsAfrica based on the vision that talented African youth could serve as agents rather than beneficiaries of positive change in their own countries. The locally led, locally funded nonprofit has emboldened a new generation of Africans to helm development projects that fight rural poverty while building resilience in poor rural communities across the continent. CorpsAfrica has placed nearly 300 volunteers in high-poverty, high-need villages throughout Malawi, Morocco, Rwanda, and Senegal, where they have constructed wells, organized literacy classes, renovated schools, and even built an NBA-funded basketball court. The tremendous work of volunteers and staff under Fanning’s tireless leadership has attracted over 10,000 applicants, donors, friends, and partners. CorpsAfrica has set a goal to host 250 volunteers in every African country, a total of 13,500 volunteers, each year.

Liz Fanning photo

Dr. Jay Grossman (DEN ’88) and
Dr. Briar Flicker-Grossman
(SSSW ’86)
Founder, President, and CEO, Homeless Not Toothless / Vice President, Homeless Not Toothless

From the moment he handed his business card to a homeless veteran 29 years ago, Dr. Jay Grossman and his wife, Dr. Briar Flicker-Grossman, have achieved extraordinary things through their nonprofit Homeless Not Toothless (HNT). Since opening its doors, HNT has provided more than $5 million in pro bono services to 60,000+ adults and children suffering from missing teeth, tooth decay, and other periodontal diseases. Today the nonprofit has over 1,000 dentists and other volunteers and works with more than three dozen dental practices that offer HNT services. HNT’s collaboration with Planet Hope, a nonprofit cofounded by actor and philanthropist Sharon Stone, has resulted in five new dental facilities that treat over 15,000 foster children annually. Dr. Grossman and Dr. Flicker-Grossman want to bring HNT to other US cities, a goal they plan to accomplish by raising a $5 million endowment.

Jay Grossman and Briar Flicker-Grossman

Israel Rocha (WAG ’18)
CEO, NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst and NYC Health + Hospitals/Queens

NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, which Israel Rocha oversees as CEO, is nearly 200 years old and one of the oldest public hospitals in the United States. It was also the “epicenter of the epicenter” of COVID-19 infections that swept the country during the early months of the crisis. In response, Elmhurst established the first open-access testing center in the United States. The hospital also boosted its ICU capacity by 500 percent to accommodate COVID-19 patients. Since Rocha took up the CEO mantle, Elmhurst has been named by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s top hospitals in orthopedics, heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Elmhurst also opened one of NYC Health + Hospitals’ first urgent-care centers and will soon finish building several state-of-the-art medical facilities.

Israel Rocha photo

Dr. Judith Haber (MEYERS ’67, ’84)
Executive Director, Oral Health Nursing Education and Practice Program • Ursula Springer Leadership Professor in Nursing (Meyers)

She may call her career path “serendipitous,” but Dr. Judith Haber is a groundbreaker by nature. A champion of whole-person care, she was one of the first advanced practice psychiatric nurses in the US and was the lead author of a definitive psychiatric nursing textbook—known as “the Haber book”—reflecting that integrated wellness perspective. Likewise, recognizing the oral health gap in medical care, she created a national model with the launch of the Oral Health Nursing Education and Practice program and the first nurse practitioner–managed primary care practice at the College of Dentistry. Fifty years’ worth of nurses have benefited under her tutelage. A fellow in the American Academy of Nursing and the New York Academy of Medicine, she is a board member of the Santa Fe Group and currently part of a national coalition to advance dental care for Medicare recipients.

Judith Haber photo

Jasper H. Kane (TANDON ’28, ’95)
Biochemist

A famed biochemist, Jasper H. Kane spearheaded the development of a revolutionary method for producing penicillin on an industrial scale. The process—deep-tank fermentation—was a game changer for Allied powers during World War II, a period when hundreds of soldiers died daily from infected wounds. That discovery by Kane, Charles Pfizer & Company’s director of research, led to the bulk production of lifesaving antibiotics. By 1944, Pfizer was the leading producer of penicillin by fermentation, supplying 90 percent of the penicillin that helped treat over 150,000 soldiers wounded in D-Day.  Though Kane passed away in 2004, the American Chemical Society designated Pfizer’s development as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. And in 2010, the Institution of Chemical Engineers hailed Kane as one of Pfizer’s “penicillin pioneers.”

Jasper Kane photo

LIli Nikolova (SPS ’13)
Project Director, Counter-Human Trafficking, Northeast Nigeria, Heartland Alliance International

Lili Nikolova grew up in communist and post-communist Bulgaria, where having a voice wasn’t encouraged. But moving to the United States helped her find and use her voice to advance human rights for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups, helping them recover and start new lives. Now Heartland Alliance International’s project director of counter-human trafficking in Northeast Nigeria, Nikolova strengthens mental health and social services for individuals who’ve suffered under violence carried out by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province. While assigned to an anti-torture program in Iraq, she oversaw efforts that contributed to the passage of a landmark witness protection law. She has also worked to shed light on female genital mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

LIli Nikolova photo