HomeNewsIntroducing the winners of the first IonE Solutions Prize

Introducing the winners of the first IonE Solutions Prize

At the Institute on the Environment, we believe the future is ours to create – that decisions and actions made today can and will inform tomorrow. For this reason, we are incredibly pleased to introduce the winners of our first Solutions Prize: Liisa Smits and Desirée Williams-Rajee.

With master’s degrees in both meteorology and physics, Liisa Smits was a visiting scientist at the University of Washington (2007 – 09) when she observed how tremendously unreliable weather forecasting was for the tropics – and decided she could do better. Gathering a team, she spent years developing a new, highly accurate weather model, and today, her company Ignitia uses it to provide hyper-local weather updates, via SMS, to more than 300,000 small-scale farmers in West Africa. Armed with accurate forecasts that cost only a few cents a day, farmers in the tropics have been able to better manage daily activities, predict water availability, and dramatically improve yields.

Desirée Williams-Rajee is a servant leader and human systems engineer, who builds the capacity of individuals and communities to advance change toward socially just and sustainable outcomes. Through her new venture, Kapwa Consulting, she provides strategic leadership coaching and guidance in building equitable institutions. Previously, Williams-Rajee worked for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and in 2016 was honored by the Obama White House as a Climate Equity Champion of Change for her work on the Portland Multnomah County Climate Action Plan which set forth a new model of community engagement and climate policy making for other cities in North America.

“I’m thrilled to have my work on racial equity, climate and sustainability be recognized by the Institute,” says Williams-Rajee. “Throughout this process, I’ve also felt that this award is not just about what I’ve already done, but faith in my ability to bring my vision for what lies ahead to fruition. In this way, this honor and platform is serving as an investment in my continued work to innovate and bring change, and for that I am very grateful.”

Providing a platform is precisely the intention of the new Solutions Prize, says Jessica Hellmann, director of IonE. “We asked ourselves what can we do, as an Institute, to incentivize real-world problem solving not only within our University system, but also the broader world – to recognize, lift up and forge connections with individuals who are practicing the kind of engaged leadership IonE itself works to cultivate.” Eligibility for the award was not limited according to career stage (i.e., early-career), but nominators were required to speak to each candidate’s “potential for continued innovation.”

Per the award requirements, the prize winners have both demonstrated success in bringing together actors across societal boundaries to inspire and implement solutions to complex environmental problems.Nominations were solicited from around the world, with final honorees selected through interviews with the awards committee.

As the first official Solutions Prize winners, Smits and Williams-Rajee were welcomed into the IonE network of change-agents. In addition to receiving an honorarium and communications support, the women were both invited to the Twin Cities and spent several days on campus, meeting and making connections with University of Minnesota staff, faculty, partners, and students. Their visits culminated last Thursday evening at the IonE 10-year celebration, where they were given the floor to deliver remarks about their work to a crowd of close to 400 IonE community members.

“IonE is focusing on Earth’s most pressing environmental problems and building partnerships across sectors,” Smits says. “So to receive this recognition, for my – and my team’s – work in increasing the yields of farmers in West Africa; it is both honoring and humbling.”

Director of Communications


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