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Nikki Eberhardt named 2021 Honored Alumna

Nikki Eberhardt (MA ’01) suggests a set of questions everyone should consider: what am I doing with my life, and how am I making a difference? For her, these questions came into sharp focus when she nearly died in a cave diving incident a decade ago. Last October, she recommended that BYU students ask themselves these questions as they grapple with difficult global challenges.

Eberhardt (pictured above with Kennedy Center Associate Director Cory Leonard) was named the David M. Kennedy Center Honored Alumna for 2021, and in October of 2021, gave the honored alumni lecture: an address titled “Leveraging Disruptive Innovation to Tackle Intractable Global Challenges.” Speaking to a group of Kennedy Center students, staff, and faculty, Eberhardt began with a question: “What is the thing that keeps you up at night but also gets you out of bed in the morning?” In other words, what is a difficult and important challenge for which you are keen to move the needle and find innovative solutions?

As the title of her lecture suggested, Eberhardt stated that we can leverage disruptive innovation in order to make a meaningful change on these difficult issues. She defined innovation as “taking a novel idea and turning it into something of value,” then gave three suggestions we can use as we tackle these problems: first, collaborate; second, innovate in crisis, and third, diversify.

To illustrate the idea of collaboration, Eberhardt talked about her work with Global Citizen, an organization that seeks to end poverty and tackle climate change issues; to get the organization’s message out, they hold major events, such as concerts, which require collaboration with CEOs, politicians, and celebrities. She defined collaboration thus: “Take the stakeholders in the space—anyone who has skin in the game, so to speak—and then . . . you try to find the best partnerships that will then maximize what you want your outputs to be.”

In her discussion of her second point, “Innovate in crisis,” Eberhardt talked about her work with Delta Airlines. Like many airlines, Delta lost a great deal of money in the pandemic. “It was inflection point,” Eberhardt said. “We had the chance to take a step back and say, ‘What are we going to do in this moment? Is this going to set us apart as an airline? Are we going to do what we have said we would do with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as our sustainability as an aviation business? Or are we just going to proceed status quo and try to survive this mess?”

On the topic of diversifying, Eberhardt discussed Minerva University, an innovative higher education institute she’s involved with that reaches students from around the world who otherwise may not have access to a high-quality education. This allows a diverse array of students to receive the education necessary to move on to great careers and to make their voices heard.

In closing, Eberhardt challenged students to think back on the global challenge they considered earlier, then “think of the innovations that you can bring to this challenge that are going to produce something of greater value,” and then act on what they thought of. “Ask yourself,” she concluded, “and live by this mantra: what am I doing, and how am I making a difference?”

This lecture can be viewed in its entirety on the Kennedy Center’s YouTube page; click here to watch.

Nikki Eberhardt, a 2001 graduate of the Kennedy Center, works to give under-resourced communities the space and capacity to empower themselves, focusing primarily on edtech, executive leadership, and scalable social/ecological impact. She is the co-founder and president of the United Nations Women Chapter in Utah. She also teaches startup finance, marketing, and social entrepreneurship at Minerva University, an innovative online school focused on utilizing technology to drive change. Eberhardt is on Delta Air Lines’ Global Talent Team to craft senior leadership development and mentor-culture strategies. She and her husband, Andrew, have three children.