Navigating a Purposeful Path

As a child, Dr. Lauren Speeth’s worldview came into focus thousands of miles from her East Coast roots. Her family moved from New York to New Delhi, where her parents co-founded a school for Dalits, people who occupy the lowest echelon of Indian society. The nation had officially abolished its 2,000-year-old caste system about 20 years earlier, in 1950, when it adopted its Constitution soon after gaining its independence, yet the hierarchy held firm, relegating Dalits—known as untouchables—to an existence of social and economic marginalization.

“That experience opened my eyes to poverty, inequality, neglected diseases, and illiteracy,” says Speeth. It also propelled her to lead a purposeful life, which eventually resulted in gifts to help educate and train students at Northeastern University to become environmental advocates, researchers, and leaders.

Just after graduating Mills College in Oakland, California, Speeth took a summer position teaching English as a second language, then volunteered for literacy. During her tech career in Silicon Valley’s heady early days, Speeth—often the lone woman programmer among her male peers—became a respected leader in her field. And today, as founder and trustee of The Elfenworks Foundation, Speeth tirelessly cultivates partnerships that advance education, innovation, and environmental preservation.

When framing The Elfenworks Foundation’s mission, Speeth was fortuitously mentored by esteemed humanitarian and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter counseled Speeth to risk failure for worthy causes, inspiring her to craft these pillars that guide how her foundation vets, selects, and manages its activism: identify and follow a vision, apply strengths in a non-duplicative way, work in partnership, share credit, measure results, and stay the course.

“Go where you’re actually needed, join together, and make a course correction when you must,” says Speeth. “It sounds simple, and it’s very straightforward, but you can apply it to everything in life.”

Speeth employs this farsighted approach to The Elfenworks Foundation’s investments in students. The foundation had established several endowments at Mills College, where Speeth served on the board of trustees. Following Mills’ merger with Northeastern University, she learned more about the university’s dedication to driving education, exploration, and action in environmental sustainability and resilience. Seeing an opportunity to align efforts, Speeth and her fellow Elfenworks Foundation trustees repurposed the Mills endowments to fund a student research co-op position in a Northeastern faculty member’s lab—and made a generous new commitment to champion students who pursue unpaid co-ops at environmentally focused nonprofit organizations.

“I’m very excited by this partnership, and where it will lead us” says Speeth. “I look forward to seeing what the students at Northeastern will accomplish with the foundation’s support. There are exciting possibilities to address today’s challenges, and this partnership is a good step in a positive direction.”

Each day, Speeth leverages hope-fueled solutions to overcome obstacles and broaden her positive impact in the world, a resolve sparked in childhood on a faraway continent. To the future leaders, pioneers, and changemakers—especially today’s students—who aspire to make a difference locally or globally, she advises that the opportunities are endless.

“There’s always something you can do,” says Speeth, “if you look with intent at how to help.”