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For the Win: Taking Action in the Big Easy

Shonak Patel, an AmeriCorps Alum and co-founder and CEO of Swellr, shares his experiences of service and action in New Orleans.

For the Win is a guest blog series featuring the remarkable initiatives that young Americans are advancing to win the future for their communities. Each week we highlight a new young person and learn about their inspiring work through their own words. Submit your story to appear in the For the Win guest blog series.

Shonak Patel is a member of AmeriCorps Alums, a division of Points of Light Institute and co-founder and CEO of Swellr. Shonak was a finalist in the 2011 MassChallenge start-up competition and accelerator.  Prior to founding Swellr, he served in AmeriCorps as finance and development fellow with the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative (NONDC) primarily working on a variety of affordable housing and community revilatilization projects in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. He graduated with honors from Babson College in 2006 with a concentration in finance.

Shonak Patel

Shonak Patel. (Photo by La Capoise Gallerie)

We heard today’s kids were having educational opportunities and resources taken from them, and not provided to them. We knew far too many teachers close to us sacrificing money out of their own paycheck every year to deliver their students the quality education they deserve. We saw a window to innovate and change the status quo in a meaningful way. So we took action.  My co-founders and I created Swellr earlier this year to make it easier for us all to do our small part to account for increasing budget cuts to education across the country.

Action, this is what being an entrepreneur is all about as I have come to learn, and this is what my service experience prepared me for. 

My lifelong goal has been to build a business that met the societal needs of the community. Profits and purpose could in fact work together in my admittedly idealistic eyes. In 2009, after witnessing the disheartening effects irresponsible business can have on society, I decided to leave my job in the investment world to serve with AmeriCorps in New Orleans. I viewed it as the opportunity I had been waiting for to leverage my business experience to give back, do good, and deepen my understanding of the socio-economic challenges facing our communities.

During my term of service, I fell in love with the city of New Orleans, its people, and its spirit. I had the privilege of working in one of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods— Central City.  Speaking directly with residents, businesses, and city government, I was able to discover the everyday challenges facing New Orleanians, young and old, by listening to them and responding to their needs. At city hall, I fought on behalf of a resident to undo an erroneous property tax judgement in 2006 post-Katrina.  Walking the neighborhood, I surveyed residents block-by-block to understand what measures could be taken to improve resident quality of life. I cleared overgrown lots, identified blighted properties, and planted trees among so much more.  At the same time, I learned so much from those I served beside, an incredibly diverse pool of both passionate and talented young Americans. The next generation of leaders. Each Corps member brought his or her own experiences, and voice, but we all wanted to make New Orleans more equitable. Working hand in hand with the communities we served, we achieved results through collaborative action and support of one another.

By the end of my experience, while I did what I could to serve New Orleans, it became more and more apparent that New Orleans and AmeriCorps had done so much more for me. I am a better person for serving, and more importantly I believe I am a better leader— equipped with the crucial ability to act on a vision for a more sustainable tomorrow. 

Check out previous For the Win blog posts: For the Win: A Big Idea, For the Win: It's All About Sole, For the Win Special Edition: Making Your Mark, For the Win: Riding the Green School Bus, For the Win: Sharing a Love of Reading, For the Win: Jacob Bernstein, For the Win: Dylan Mahalingam.

Ronnie Cho is an Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.