Student Campaign Against Gender-Based Violence Goes National
Through the Project X-ITE XLR8 program, Do Better is preparing to make an even bigger impact
Grace Wankelman didn’t mean to start a movement. When she teamed with Shannon Saul (BA ’20) and Madeline Membrino, a rising fourth-year student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, urging the University of Denver to “do better” addressing and preventing sexual assault, all she wanted was to be heard.
Turns out, she did both.
From the minute it launched in January, the @wecanDUbetter Instagram account made waves with a stream of graphic stories detailing on-campus sexual harassment, sexual assault, gender violence and the toll these took on survivors. Within hours, the account had more than 1,000 followers. Within weeks, DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner responded with a seven-page action plan to address the concerns.
“I felt like it was one of the first times our university has engaged in a really productive conversation on gender-based violence that was centering the survivors’ stories,” says Wankelman, who is majoring in political science, economics and international studies. “We saw so much progress, from student engagement to faculty and clubs. DU’s administration really responded well, especially the chancellor with the response we got and the change we’ve seen happen on DU’s campus. It was truly powerful, and it was a moment where so many people felt like they had a voice. And a lot of people from other campuses across the country started reaching out to us, because they were seeing this and the change that we were able to get.”
In February, wecanDUbetter became, simply, Do Better, an organization serving institutions nationwide. The site’s creators wanted — and needed — to grow, Wankelman says. They needed, a classmate told them, to look into Project X-ITE. The on-campus resource for startups and student entrepreneurs could provide the boost the team needed to amplify their message.
Specifically, Wankelman says, they zeroed in on the XLR8 program. Formerly known as Pioneering Summer, XLR8 is a 10-week intensive experience dedicated to developing fledgling ideas and teaching students what it takes to be successful in the business world.
“Whenever I think of business, I didn’t think of it as a space for me or for our organization,” Wankelman says. “I 100% believed in our mission and our organization, but I saw all of these badass businesspeople pitching incredible ideas. It seemed like they knew how to run a business, and we were very different from them.”
The team nailed its pitch, gained acceptance into the program and came under the wing of Nina Sharma, Project X-ITE’s executive director.
“I think they are the best example of how anyone can be an entrepreneur,” Sharma says. “If they see a problem in the world that they want to fix, they can fix it. That makes them entrepreneurs. I love that they’re changing what the definition is and what an entrepreneur looks like.”
Do Better is the first nonprofit to enter the four-year-old XLR8 incubator, which took on 19 students from eight companies this year. Each startup receives $10,000 to develop their idea. Over the course of the summer, the teams attended 25 different workshops on everything from branding to fundraising to organizational development.
Every step of the way, students work with mentors from the Denver business community and grow together in a collaborative cohort environment — even though that had to happen virtually this year.
That made it hard, Sharma says, to have the in-person get-togethers and spontaneous bonding that is a hallmark of the program. But conversely, a Zoom-centered curriculum provided access to professionals around the world.
Wankelman and Do Better used some of the sessions to connect with specific resources for nonprofits.
“The biggest thing we’ve emerged with is how can we turn this movement or moment into a sustainable organization that can support itself,” Wankelman says, crediting this result to new financial and business plans.
Do Better is working to establish satellite organizations on other campuses while working with university administrations to ease communication and foster collaboration. Its founders are seeking and have participated in speaking engagements at conferences and other gatherings. The nonprofit, close to acquiring its 501(c)3 status, is also exploring ideas for fiscal sponsorship and fundraising.
From Sharma’s point of view, Do Better’s most important work was growing together as a team. Unlike most of the startups, which are created by friends or classmates, Do Better grew out of a shared experience that pulled Wankelman, Saul and Membrino together. They had hardly met before wecanDUbetter launched and began to garner headlines.
“They got thrown into this work, but they didn’t actually know each other personally,” Sharma says. “A lot of their growth was getting to know each other, getting to really understand each other as people, how they work differently together and what different skills they brought to the table.”
Despite the labor of starting a nonprofit — not to mention the emotional work that comes with such personal advocacy — Wankelman feels more empowered than ever to grow Do Better. She’s inspired by the feedback the organization has already received, much of it from survivors who finally feel heard and able to report their experience or speak out.
With the XLR8 experience in her toolbox, Wankelman feels she’s found her voice, too.
“After working with XLR8, I’ve realized that I do have something to say; I have the ability to make change, and I can be a leader in this space,” she says. “In the past couple of months, I went from this place of absolute hopelessness and powerlessness to a space where we’re working with so many inspiring people and we’re seeing the actual change.
“Understanding what it feels like to have absolutely no power and all of your autonomy taken away from you — not only to reclaim it for yourself but to help other people find that, I would be willing to work 25 hours a day to do that.”