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Mike Clarke ’11

Mike Clarke ’11

Helping refugees, balancing life’s scales

By Molly Congdon '12

We live in a world where inherent privileges and luck still play too big of a role in determining the types of opportunities and impact we can each have as individuals,” Mike Clarke ’11 said. “You do not choose your parents, your skin color, what disabilities you may have, or what community and country you will be born in. These are completely uncontrollable factors, yet we live in societies where these very factors can open doors or create roadblocks.”

“Every time I travel both in the U.S. and abroad, I am reminded of how unfair this world is,” he continued, “and am continually inspired to try and balance the scales as best I can.”

As director of the Humanitarian Innovation Lab in Lebanon, Clarke collaborates with entities like the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and UNICEF to develop, test and deploy technologies to help the growing number of refugees in this part of the world.

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One example is a banking app to support a United Nations cash assistance program. It might sound like a relatively simple endeavor, but “here in Lebanon, 98 percent of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees never had a bank account before. There are constant issues at ATMs and a steady stream of banking related questions.”

Conquering these obstacles is exciting and gratifying, but it’s got nothing on the people he meets along the way.

“Recently, we installed one of our sensor kits at a refugee family’s home that is literally on top of a mountain,” Clarke said. “We came there to install the device, which allows UN agencies to see in real-time which families are exposed to vulnerable environmental conditions and require immediate support, but soon I was involved in a snow ball fight with all the kids.”

“It is important to just be human sometimes,” he added. “I cherish each moment I can be with a family and not talk about work.”

Clarke, the recipient of a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial (RFA) scholarship, studied Arabic at the American University in Beirut in 2013. It was his first introduction to Lebanon and his first exposure to the refugee crisis.

He also did master’s work in international relations at the University of Cape Town, also with backing from the RFA award. And in 2013 and 2014, he worked for startup tech companies like Relationship Science and Findyr (both in New York City) before becoming a senior analyst for AltThink in San Francisco (January-April 2016).

Clarke knows he’s picked the right path. “I’ve been waking up at 6 a.m. without an alarm clock for the first time in my life,” he said. “For me that’s a sign that I must be doing something I love.”

And learning what he loved started at Union, where he created his own organizing theme major (religion & politics) and established the Building up Ghana program. Clarke started the program his sophomore year to raise funds and materials to build a library and music/art center for a school in Ghana.

“Union gave me wings,” Clarke said. “When I was interested in a random but somehow connected series of courses, multiple departments endorsed me on my concept for an organizing theme major. When I wanted to create my own term abroad to Egypt, the term abroad office worked with me to outline a plan and then cut me a check and said ‘go.’”

“When I had an idea to build libraries halfway around the world, every one of my teachers, advisors, the deans and President Ainlay supported me,” he added. “No matter how big or far-fetched my ideas were, Union always had my back and gave me a chance to execute my vision.”

And his vision is getting more ambitious as he gains experience.

“The technologies we are introducing will help redefine what’s possible for responses to humanitarian crises,” Clarke said. “We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of how technology can be leveraged to help the most vulnerable communities live a safer, healthier, and more empowering life.”

So what’s next for Clarke?

“Some cool media projects covering our work here will be coming out this year via platforms like TechCrunch,” he said. “My plan for 2017 is to formalize all of my work here by setting up my own social enterprise that replicates my work in Lebanon globally. In parallel, I am working on a new education startup and will be launching that by the second quarter of 2017.”