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College Essay Contest


Paige Doherty

This past winter break, we conducted the first Behind Genius Winter Break College Essay Contest. Our college essay contest provided both an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the challenges the next generation faces and an avenue to highlight some of their stories. Students from as far as Singapore submitted essays with topics varying from fast fashion to virtual power plants to smartphone addiction. 

I’m excited to highlight the top five finalists’ writing below:

Our Winner: Fighting Fast Fashion  - Missy Oei

Missy Oei, an entrepreneurship student at Dayton, was the winner of our college essay contest - she won a $500 cash price, the chance to shadow me and we recorded an episode of Seed to Harvest together [linked here].

Missy’s personal experience of learning to sew during the pandemic led to a realization of the environmental dangers of fast fashion, prompting the creation of a clothing rental app with an all-female tech team. Consumer behaviors, including buying less, supporting sustainable brands, and opting for second-hand items, can help mitigate the negative impacts of fast fashion.

But despite a growing awareness among Gen Z and millennial consumers about the environmental impact of their purchases, there is a gap in affordable and sustainable options, and the rise of such alternatives is crucial for reshaping the norms of the fast fashion industry. Sustainable fashion startups, such as "Good on You" and "For Days," are emerging with innovative solutions to combat the problems of fast fashion, offering eco-conscious alternatives.

Missy’s essay effectively opens with a striking comparison between the environmental impact of a shopping trip and a plane ride, immediately capturing the reader's attention. She establishes credibility through the inclusion of impactful statistics on the environmental consequences of fast fashion, supported by specific examples of companies like Shein and Forever 21. 

Missy’s personal journey from sewing face masks to building a clothing rental app adds a relatable and human touch, demonstrating a tangible effort to address the problems highlighted in the essay. The essay consistently ties the issue of fast fashion to broader questions about sustainability, consumer behavior, and business responsibility, urging readers to consider the ethical implications of their choices.

Stand out excerpt: 

The fast fashion industry produces 20% of global water waste and 10% of carbon emissions- about four times greater than the commercial airline industry. Countries like Chile, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria have become dumping grounds for 92 million tons of clothing waste. Most of these clothes are unusable- disrupting these countries’ trade practices, polluting their water, and growing their landfills. Yet,companies like Shein (which makes 50% of all fast fashion sales) and Forever 21 still grow faster year over year, churning out up to 10,000 new products daily using forceful labor practices, cheap and environmentally harmful materials, and stolen clothing designs.

Southeast Asia  - Daryl Lim

Daryl’s essay focuses on addressing the educational gap in Southeast Asia, particularly in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, in comparison to Singapore's high standards. Daryl, drawing from personal experiences as the Chief Networks Officer of Advisory Singapore and his involvement in pro-bono mentorship programs, underscores the societal impact of education and the urgent need to democratize education for every child's opportunity to thrive, contribute globally, and create a well-rounded, service-oriented populace.

His essay highlights insights from the ASEAN regional forum on Education, emphasizing the importance of accessible and inclusive education, digital skills development, and lifelong learning for fostering equitable societies. Start-ups in the region, such as Zenith Learning Group, are developing Ed-Tech solutions to bridge the educational gap by offering Singapore-quality education to those who cannot afford it.

Daryl’s essay opens with a straightforward statement about the education gap in Southeast Asia, effectively engaging readers from the start. Daryl established through the inclusion of facts and statistics about the challenges in Southeast Asian education, along with the mention of some of the startups in our portfolio like ProfJim making a positive impact.

His essay clearly outlines the problems faced by some Southeast Asian countries in terms of education, emphasizing the need for innovative solutions to bridge the global education gap and improve learning outcomes. Ending on a hopeful note by mentioning the rising support for startups in the education sector, Daryl’s essay instills optimism about the potential for positive change and innovation in Southeast Asian education.

Standout excerpt: 

While other necessities are crucial for survival, what sets education apart is its unique ability to facilitate upward social mobility. Unlike other industries that contribute to survival, education plays a pivotal role in empowering individuals to forge a better future for themselves, their families, and their loved ones. It stands out as the industry that enables us not just to survive but to thrive.

Virtual Power Plants  - Pranjal Sheth

Prajanl’s essay focused on the strain in our electrical grid. Blackouts are becoming more frequent due to the aging grid infrastructure, with approximately 400 outages this year, resulting in over 9000 hours without power and costing Texas over $200 billion in the last two years. He proposed the use of decentralized energy resources, specifically Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), which are sustainable independent power sources that integrate with the grid using software and hard-asset installations on residential and commercial properties. VPPs allow individuals and businesses to generate and sell surplus power during peak demand periods, increasing grid resilience, reducing the need for infrastructure upgrades, and providing compensation for energy contributions. 

Major corporations like Tesla, Sonnen, and Sunrun, along with startups such as Orison, ConnectDER, Moxia, and Oxidative, are entering the space, offering various solutions like home batteries, using second-life EV batteries, and creating software to maximize power sales during peak times. Implementation of VPPs not only allows individuals to control their own power during outages but also accelerates renewable energy integration, increases customer education about the energy transition, and addresses the challenges of power supply and demand without placing excessive burdens on any single entity.

Daryl’s essay starts with a compelling personal introduction about his experience living through blackouts and the strain on aging grid infrastructure, establishing the urgency of the topic and its relevance to readers. He established credibility with examples of companies like HEB and well-known corporations like Tesla, Sonnen, and Sunrun entering the virtual power plant space. 

Tying into broader questions about renewable energy, grid resilience, and the role of innovative solutions, the discussion on virtual power plants contributes to shaping the future of energy. The essay's focus on real-world examples, such as HEB making millions through selling power, adds a practical dimension to the economic benefits of virtual power plants.

Standout excerpt: 

A family of four with solar panels on their roof can sell their excess power to the grid during peak demand periods and make money. Hospitals that require backup generators can keep the generator on throughout the year and sell the power, creating a significant revenue source instead of having the generator sit around. Churches connected to MWh-capacity substations because of their high energy requirements during Sunday’s can install generators and sell power onto the grid throughout the week and become self-funded locations.

Melanoma  - Andres Valdiri

Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, poses a significant threat, particularly to the aging population, which is expected to increase from 58 million in 2022 to 82 million by 2050. The financial and medical challenge of fighting melanoma costs $8.9 billion annually, emphasizing the need for innovative solutions.

Early detection is crucial, with a 99% survival rate for melanoma detected early. However, aging adults face challenges, including weakened immune systems, difficulty detecting irregularities, and limited access to regular doctor visits. The proposed solution, SkinYaya, offers an affordable and user-friendly platform that utilizes AI and smartphone technology to enable at-home skin cancer screenings. SkinYaya empowers older adults with easy-to-use tools, fostering human connection and providing emotional comfort through CareYaya's extensive caregiver network. The initiative aims to reduce melanoma deaths, offering early detection, treatment options, and overall well-being for the elderly.

Andres’ essay opens with a powerful statement about melanoma being the deadliest form of skin cancer. Credibility is established through references to the Skin Cancer Foundation's statistics and mentions of startups like CareYaya, adding authority to the essay's insights. Showcasing empathy in innovation, the essay focuses on solutions that empower individuals, like SkinYaya, demonstrating a thoughtful approach to addressing health issues.

The essay clearly communicates the significance of early melanoma detection, especially for vulnerable populations like the elderly. It stresses the need for accessible solutions and preventive measures. Connecting to broader questions about technology's role in healthcare, accessibility, and ethical considerations, the essay offers a comprehensive view of the implications of using AI in medicine.

Standout excerpt: 

Fighting [skin cancer] costs a staggering $8.9 billion annually (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023). But here's the silver lining – early detection can make a monumental difference. The Skin Cancer Foundation (2022) reveals that the five-year survival rate for melanoma detected early is about 99%...But it’s not just about survival; it's about easing the economic burden on individuals and our healthcare system and, most importantly, giving older people a sense of security and peace.

AI Creative Cycle - Mathurah Ravigulan

Mathurah’s compelling essay on the integration of AI tools within the Human Creative Cycle, emphasizes the remixability and iteration principles that are inherent in the creative process. The Human Creative Cycle, inspired by remixability, involves the integration of new ideas from various sources, akin to creative software patterns seen in platforms like Github, Replit, Tiktok, and more.

AI's role in the creative process is explored across different stages of the creative cycle: Acquisition, Storing, Understanding, Connecting, and Creation, with examples of AI tools facilitating these aspects, from information retrieval to collaborative code editing and generative motion design. Developing the ability to think independently while using AI as a catalyst is crucial, with a potential shift towards education focusing on humanities, emotional intelligence, and soft skills in the new era of AI-assisted creativity.

The essay opens with a catchy assertion about the collaborative nature of creativity and AI, immediately drawing readers into the discussion. Grounded in real-world examples, the essay illustrates the integration of AI in creative processes, with creative doodles mentioning platforms like Github, Replit, and examples like TikTok duets. Addressing broader questions about the future of work, human-machine collaboration, and the role of soft skills, the essay offers a thoughtful exploration of the implications of AI on creativity. Emphasizing the importance of maintaining a human touch in the creative process, the essay resonates with readers concerned about the potential dehumanizing effects of technology.

Standout excerpt: 

Similar to how the noise and influence of social media can impede our sense of agency and individual thought, integrating AI in creative processes can have a similar effect. It becomes more important than ever to develop the ability to think for yourself and use AI as a catalyst to build upon your own creative visions. I imagine classes focused on humanities, emotional intelligence and soft skills will be prevalent in this new era to foster agentic creation.

Candy Jar - Alexandros (Alex) Engkelidis

Alex’s essay starts with a personal anecdote about unhealthy habits such as revenge bedtime procrastination, where digital engagement takes precedence over sleep. The essay mentions attempts to address smartphone addiction, including tools like "one sec" and "blloc," but expresses skepticism about their effectiveness and the structural limitations inherent in the design of digital devices and platforms. The detrimental effects of excessive screen time include sleep issues, higher BMI, physical discomfort, eye strain, reduced daytime functioning, and relationship problems, contributing to various mental health issues and loneliness.

The essay proposes the idea of restricting digital usage rather than eliminating or replacing it, citing the growth of communities like r/nosurf and highlighting the importance of a balanced creation/consumption ratio for individual well-being. While acknowledging the positive potential of innovation in mental wellness, the essay emphasizes the need for a different approach, potentially involving the creator economy, to foster healthier relationships with technology and address the increasing prevalence of internet and social media addictions worldwide.

Alex’s essay starts with a unique perspective on smartphone usage, framing it as living through them rather than just using them. Through both relatable examples and statistics, the essay effectively communicates the pervasive nature of smartphone addiction, particularly among the younger generation. The comparison to other daily items adds a touch of humor and relatability.

The essay clearly explains the negative consequences of excessive screen time, linking it to physical and mental health issues. It prompts readers to reflect on their own digital habits and the impact on their well-being. The essay successfully ties the issue of smartphone addiction to broader questions about technology's role in our lives, the need for mindful consumption, and the responsibility of both individuals and innovators in shaping healthier digital habits.


Expecting individuals to effectively regulate their own digital consumption using tools they fully control is paradoxical. It's like asking someone addicted to sweets to keep a candy jar locked but within their reach. The user, familiar with the ins and outs of the application, can often find ways to bypass the very restrictions they set.

In Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed reading through some of our favorite submissions from our first college essay contest. From fast fashion to virtual power plants, these essays highlight pressing issues college students around the US & globe are thinking about solving. We're looking forward to hosting the essay contest again next year!