“Improv is a life tool that every student needs to empower them to become the leaders of tomorrow,” said Meera Menon, W’20, and Philip Chen, W’20, winners of the President’s Engagement Prize.

Having grown up with a mutual love of the performing arts, Meera Menon, W’20, and Philip Chen, W’20, hit it off right away when they met on the first day of Wharton’s freshman orientation. One year later, they teamed up to create The Unscripted Project. Their goal: to teach improv theater to Philadelphia youth and empower them to speak more confidently, collaborate more effectively, and internalize the value of practice and perseverance. 

Meera and Philip were two of eight Penn seniors in the Class of 2020 awarded the President’s Engagement Prize for striving to make a positive, lasting difference in the world. The team is now planning 10-week improv courses for students in grades 6–10 in Philadelphia public schools, taught by comedians from the Philly Improv Theater (PHIT).

They shared the philosophy behind their initiative and the biggest takeaways from their experience at Wharton.

Walk us through The Unscripted Project. How did you come up with the idea and what do you hope to accomplish?

Meera and Philip: We believe that improv can be transformative. We’ve both been lucky enough to have exposure to theatre and improv growing up, and realized that it has been responsible for many of our successes as we’ve grown older. It’s through this exposure that we learned how to be articulate public speakers, to better understand others’ points of view, and to persevere in the face of challenges. We concluded that improv is the best medium through which to impart these skills that Philadelphia students can take far beyond the classroom. Our long term goal is to ensure that every student in Philadelphia has access and exposure to an improv education.

While we have been working closely with a few schools to launch our program, the uncertainty of COVID-19 has certainly made us utilize our ‘improv skills’ and ensure we are able to adapt to the current situation. While we hope to launch in schools in the fall, we have been talking with our mentors and primary partner, PHIT, in developing a virtual curriculum accessible to anyone at home.

Why improv?

The Unscripted Project is based on our belief that improv is not just for “theatre kids,” but rather a fundamental skill set for everyone to acquire, no matter what your future goals may be.

We’ve based our initiative on one of the core tenets of improv — namely, “Yes, And.” “Yes” refers to the unconditional acceptance of the given circumstances, and “And” represents the creativity and resiliency we bring when we build upon the circumstances. We’re going to approach building out The Unscripted Project with this mindset of accepting the challenges that come our way, taking risks, and crafting innovative solutions. We hope we can empower our students to do the same. Here is a great article that articulates this concept further.

What Wharton resources helped you develop this project?

The lessons and values imparted during our time at Wharton have been instrumental in the development of The Unscripted Project. Through Wharton, we’ve learned how to think critically about business. We’ve learned about robust business models, how to create sustainable streams of revenue, rigorously test assumptions, and measure impact. We used the Business Model Canvas to develop the foundations of The Unscripted Project, and are confident that applying these core business fundamentals to our nonprofit will allow it to serve Philly students for much longer than the one-year duration of this prize.

In addition, Wharton’s emphasis on the idea that ‘leadership can be taught’ continues to inspire us. There is a growing body of research which suggests that improv methods can be a transformative tool in business success, and we have begun to see improv used by corporations during leadership training. Wharton even offered an improv class to students this year through the McNulty Leadership Program — this, paired with the emerging body of research, supports our thesis that improv is a life tool that every student needs to empower them to become the leaders of tomorrow.

What are your biggest personal takeaways from these last few years?

Developing this venture helped us grow as students, entrepreneurs, and people. We’ve learned many valuable lessons along the way:

  • Form meaningful relationships during your time at Wharton. This is a project we could not have done without each other and we quickly discovered the importance of having a strong team. We met on day 1 of Freshman year during cohort orientation we were both in Yen but little did we know at the time that our friendship would evolve into a strong partnership. Look for people you trust and know you can lean on.
  • Entrepreneurship should stem from passion. This is a project born out of our own experiences of the power of a theater education. Our venture would not be as strong as it is without our deep belief that improv can be transformative and is a vital tool in life.
  • Take advantage of the resources and network at Penn. The tools and network at our disposal at Penn were fundamental in developing our non-profit. We received an enormous amount of help across various departments and resources at Penn which included Wharton, Theatre Arts Department, CURF, Netter Center, and the GSE. We could not have been more grateful for the support and guidance of the professors and mentors at Penn. Send the cold emails!

— Angela Lin and Gloria Yuen

Posted: June 12, 2020

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