Work that matters: Lori's EF journey
Here at EF Education First, one person can work in multiple locations and hold various roles, all while working towards one mission—opening the world through education. Lori van Dam, the Chief Executive Officer of Hult Prize, knows this well.
As the daughter of two educators, learning in the classroom and from the world around her were core parts of her upbringing in Barrington, Rhode Island. "My dad went on two sabbaticals while I was growing up," Lori recalls. "When I was seven, we lived in Holland for a year, and when I was 13, we lived in Switzerland for a year."
This early exposure to experiential learning impacted her view of education, especially when learning new languages—Lori can speak five. In addition to her native English, she learned Dutch the year her family lived in Holland and during the summers she spent there afterward. She learned French and German while living and attending school in Switzerland and she studied Swedish as an early EF team member. "I do not take credit for the languages that I speak," Lori reflects. "They were given to me as a gift."
After attending Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and working for a startup, Lori found EF through her best friend. Lori’s first project at EF turned into one of EF's associated organizations: "I started what became Cultural Care Au Pair. Having had that radical opportunity so young was quite an adventure." She chuckles, saying, "Looking back now, I was allowed to do things I had no business doing."
Lori spent the next 20 years of her career in the EF family of companies. One of her favorite experiences was reporting directly to EF's founder, Bertil Hult. "It was something different daily,” Lori says. “I learned so much from him." He influenced her leadership style, and she reflects that Bertil "has a true humility about him. One of the things baked into who he is, is the belief in continual improvement and the idea that you can constantly reevaluate and learn from mistakes."
Lori left EF to lead organizations in the nonprofit space. She was the Executive Director of One Fund Boston, the nonprofit established by Mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick in the aftermath of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Lori oversaw the distribution of more than $20 million to survivors and families who lost loved ones, which came a year after the initial distribution of nearly $61 million. She was also an executive at Susan G. Komen, the world's leading nonprofit breast cancer organization, for nearly seven years. "I have always cared about doing something with a mission,” Lori said. “If you're a person who has an interest in humanity and wants to make the world a better place, you can do that in many ways.”
In 2021, Lori brought her nonprofit expertise back to the community of people she grew up with professionally when she signed on as the CEO of Hult Prize. Lori describes it as "a global student social entrepreneurship competition with a million-dollar prize." Hult Prize's mission, members, and global impact energize and inspire Lori daily.
“We have a campus director in Sudan named Maiy," Lori notes. "She won best campus director in the program last year out of the 2,000 campus directors worldwide. She ran a program at her university while the entire country was at war. There was fighting in the streets, and there was no electricity, no water, and definitely no Wi-Fi. Despite this, she and her organizing committee got over 200 student proposals for an on-campus pitching event. Their world was in chaos, but she had so much perseverance in the face of obstacles that I cannot even visualize, and she pulled off an amazing program."
Maiy's story and countless others fuel Lori’s passion for pushing Hult Prize forward. "Hult Prize offers participants who might not have many opportunities, and certainly do not have the opportunities that I have had, a path to become part of a bigger community, to envision themselves as entrepreneurs, and to give them agency in their futures," she says. "Being able to do that as my job? That is an incredible privilege."
Hult Prize fuels social entrepreneurship, and Lori believes the nonprofit's most significant impact is through its ripple of awareness. "We have over a million alumni, which means that there are over a million people out there who, over the last 14 years, have understood social entrepreneurship and how they can be a part of it," Lori says. "They walk away understanding they can take steps in their own lives and improve the world. That is a big ripple effect, and I think that is our biggest impact."
The 2023 Hult Prize Challenge was "redesigning fashion," and encouraged teams to launch an innovative social venture in the clothing and fashion industry to make it more sustainable. The finals occurred in Paris, France, on September 22, 2023, and the winner was Banofi Leather, a startup making vegan leather from banana crop waste.
Reflecting on her early days at EF, Lori advises anyone starting their career not to sweat the small stuff and to stay open-minded. "I did not know where my career would lead me when I started, nor did I know that this would be a job that I would even one day be considered for. I try to teach my kids to be open to possibilities. Say yes more than you say no because you never know where it might lead you."