Many of us don’t like asking for things. It makes us a bit uncomfortable; we don’t want to be a bother, we don’t want to get rejected, we don’t want to become indebted to someone else. But to be successful in business—or in life generally—you often must ask for what you want. And one idea that comes up often, from marketing classes to sales seminars to self-help books, is that sometimes you must focus on what’s in it for the other person.

At Acara, we spend a lot of time emphasizing to the students the importance of connecting with mentors: that they will learn a lot, get a different perspective, and improve their plans. When we recruit mentors, it feels like we are asking a lot of them. But based on the experiences of Kaleel Ahmed and Jeremy Knopow, this month’s featured mentors, it’s not just the students who learn valuable lessons and develop important skills from the Acara Challenge experience.

Kaleel Ahmed – University of Minnesota Mentor

Kaleel was introduced to Acara co-founder Fred Rose 3 years ago, through a close mutual friend who worked with Fred at Honeywell. Says Kaleel,“I have always been interested in social entrepreneurship and was also involved with leading sustainability strategy for one of the most prominent consumer brands for my company [3M]. I have lot of experience in creating new product and new businesses. My skills background, skill sets and interests matched Acara’s needs.”

As the program has evolved, so has Kaleel’s approach to mentoring. “During the first year, I was impatient and wanted to tell the students all the things they need to do upfront. I have learned to be more patient with the students and let them experience the learning process and guide them through difficult situations. I’ve learned to be balanced in my approach so the students need to ask. This is difficult for me but a necessary a part of the learning experience for the students. I still guide them through things they need to look out for, from my from previous team experiences and ask checking questions. The students I guide get the most based on how they want to use me. Some teams do better than others. I am available to them but only if they need me.  I explain this clearly.”

Kaleel’s experiences with Acara have had a broader effect on him, as well. “Being involved with Acara has also made me more aware of the world around me and the global need to address critical sustainability issues. We are so fortunate in the US yet we waste so much. I have made changes to how I consume.  I hope this experience has made me a more responsible world citizen.”

What is his is favorite part about being an Acara Challenge mentor? “I love the whole aspect of social entrepreneurship. I am a believer. I love working with students and mentoring them. The most rewarding part is when you see the team hit it in high gear with passion and commitment and share a solution that is really going to make a difference in people’s lives. They know it and I know it.”

As busy as he is with work and mentoring the Acara team, he finds time to give back in other ways, including serving on the board of another community non-profit organization. He helps produce and shares hosting responsibilities for two local television shows, GeetmalaTV ( and DiFTV, which air on Twin Cities Public Television’s MN Channel. He also enjoys traveling with his family, especially to Europe.

When asked how a close friend would describe him, he said, “It is hard to talk about yourself in this fashion. But here is what I have I heard: Outgoing, approachable and always willing to help anyone in need. I try to live up to this every day.” Based on what he has done for Acara, he seems to be doing just that.

Jeremy Knopow – Subject Matter Expert

We have asked a lot of Jeremy on behalf of Acara and he has always happily delivered. An award-winning industrial designer, Jeremy has provided content and advice for the design thinking units of the Acara curricula, and has traveled from his home in Wisconsin to many universities—including IIT Roorkee—to engage directly with Acara students.   He describes himself as “compassionately creative” (and a bit stubborn), and this is evident in the Base of the Pyramid initiatives he develops for SC Johnson and Sons.

Jeremy’s involvement with us began small, but has quickly grown. He started out guest lecturing for the Acara class at Cornell, having worked with the lead professor’s husband. “After that, I was just so impressed with the overall social entrepreneurship and education mission of Acara that I wanted to help out in whatever way possible.”

His numerous interactions with students, both for the Acara Challenge and Sales for Social Impact classes, have made him more comfortable talking to a big group of students. He has also become less focused on lecturing and more focused on engaging with individual teams and their specific needs. Still, when asked about his biggest challenge or frustration, he says, “Probably the limited amount of time I get to spend with each school or team, and knowing that their other exposure to other user-centered design resources is fairly limited.  I have seen that design can be a powerful tool to turn research into actionable, tangible, and appropriate results and it is vastly underutilized in the social impact field”.

As with Kaleel, Jeremy’s involvement with Acara has affected him beyond the context of working with groups of students.  “I think it has reinforced my belief that real and sustainable improvement for the BoP can come best about in conjunction with education.  Try as we might to innovate for BoP, ultimately the BoP will need to learn to innovate for itself.  There are just too many contextual pitfalls to think it can be an outside-in endeavor, and teaching innovation I think is easier than trying to teach context.”  

Somehow, in the midst of his job at SC Johnson, his involvement with Acara, and teaching an Industrial Design course at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, he finds spare time for traveling, rebuilding antique cars, glass blowing, ceramics, and adventure racing.

We hope these two experienced mentors continue to stay involved Acara for years to come. Or maybe instead of just hoping, we should just ask!