Start Empathy


Our Team


Maria Laura Acebal

Maria co-leads Ashoka’s Youth Years team, focused on making concrete the vision of “Everyone a Changemaker” to young people across North America. She has been working in the nonprofit sector for the last fifteen years, both in executive and governance roles. She founded and ran [email protected] Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to food allergy safety in schools, camps, and daycares across the country. She then brought those programs to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (known as FARE), the world’s largest food allergy advocacy organization, where she served first as General Counsel and the CEO. Before joining Ashoka, Maria worked at Orr Associates, a consulting firm serving a broad range of nonprofit organizations, including charter schools. She serves on the boards of various nonprofits including Center for Inspired TEching, Legal Resource Center for Violence Against Women, and Food Allergy Research Education. Maria has also worked at McKinsey & Company as a strategic business consultant and at Williams & Connolly as a litigator. She received her J.D. from Yale Law School and her B.A. in Mathematics from Duke University.

Laura Hay

Laura leads Ashoka’s search and selection for the US Changemaker Schools Network. She was born in Madrid and has a BA in Linguistics and International Comparative Studies from Duke University. Bilingual in English and Spanish, fluent in Portuguese and French and having studied Hindi, Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek, she loves working cross-culturally and discovering different ways of thinking, living and being in the world. As a Pre K-5th grade science, language, nutrition and garden educator at the Garden School Foundation’s main site, she advanced meaningful education initiatives for underserved youth in L.A. through hands-on learning in outdoor living classrooms. At Social Impact Media Awards she advanced global awareness of humanitarian issues by championing and exhibiting creative works of visual storytelling that inspire activism, compassion and positive social transformation. She aspires to improve how we engage people as responsible citizens of an interconnected world, to prepare and enable them to think critically, creatively and compassionately about the global social and environmental challenges of our present and future. She is now embarking on a Master’s in Social Innovation from the University of Cambridge alongside her work with Start Empathy. 


Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers is a senior advisor to the Start Empathy initiative and has worked on a number of Ashoka initiatives since 2008. He is an Associate Professor of English and the Associate Chair of the English Department at George Mason University. Since 2011 he has also served as a Senior Scholar at George Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. An innovative and interdisciplinary leader, Dr. Rogers has led a variety of initiatives focused on supporting teachers and advancing social entrepreneurship and well-being in higher education. Paul earned his PhD in education from UC Santa Barbara in 2008. His recent publications include the co-edited volumes: Writing Research from Multiple Perspectives (in press); International Advances in Writing Research: Cultures, Places, and Measures (2012); Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook (2011); and, Traditions of Writing Research (2010). His most recent publications include book chapters on well-being in higher education; curricular advances in social entrepreneurship; and strengthening PhD programs across the disciplines. He was a 2008 recipient of the American Association of Colleges & Universities K. Patricia Cross Award for leadership in higher education, and was a co-recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English 2009 Janet Emig Award for research in English education. He is also the former Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project. He recently gave a TEDx talk entitled “How to Live your Best Life” and was a featured expert on the Washington, D.C. PBS station WETA’s award-winning series “Reading Rockets“, which helps young children to read and write.


Vipin Thekk

Vipin Thekk is a Change Leader at Ashoka and creator of the Changemaker Communities and Parenting Changemakers initiatives. Cipin specializes in designing experiences for individual and collective transformation. He has led initiatives integrating changemaking into the mindset, systems, and culture of school districts, communities, faith institutions, and families. He also co-founded the Wellbeing Project — and initiative to support social entrepreneurs in cultivating personal and professional wellbeing. Before joining Ashoka, Vipin co-founded Tulir, an organization in Chennai that works on the prevention and healing of children who have suffered from sexual abuse. Vipin has a Master’s in Social Work and is an Integral Life Coach, a Kundalini Yoga teacher, and an experienced facilitator, having led transformation-based work for communities around the world.


Romina Laouri

Romina leads innovation for the Start Empathy initiative and joined Ashoka in 2005. Among her many roles at Ashoka, she has helped launch Youth Venture (YV) in Germany, strategized YV’s expansion in Latin America, has led YV’s social media strategy, and developed the YV Summits, and has led multiple media partnerships and youth campaigns. More recently, she has organized and hosted TEDxYSE and TEDxAshokaU.   She completed her undergraduate work at Macalester College and holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago. She is an active member of the peace movement in Cyprus and is a co-founder of a youth group that promotes youth participation. She also serves as a Board Member to the Cyprus Neuroscience and Technology Institute (CNTI) and has done extensive work as well as published around the use of Structured Dialogic Design Process (SDDP) approach for a variety of co-laboratories in Cyprus.

Valentina Raman

Valentina leads engagement of Start Empathy’s network of Changemaker Schools and Empathy Fellows in events, media, and other opportunities with the goal of catalyzing conversation and shifting mindsets in the field of education. Having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama in a cross-cultural, multi-religion household, Valentina has long been facilitating conversations across diverse perspectives within her family, schools, and communities. She now applies these personal experiences to her work, facilitating opportunities for the network’s leading educators and social entrepreneurs to share their stories on influential physical and digital platforms. In addition to her work at Ashoka, Valentina co-founded IMPACT Magazine, a student-run solutions journalism publication, which continues to elevate the stories of changemakers at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. She is now preparing for the launch of her newest venture, JournalUp: an educational program that seeks to empower student voices in their schools and communities via their practice of daily writing in an online journal.

Get Updates

Ashoka Fellows: Creative Visionaries Committed to Solving Social Problems

Learn More