Social Enterprising Alumna Wins Rhodes Scholarship
Melissa McCoy grew up traveling the world with two engineer parents who challenged her to not simply take in other cultures at face value. Now an engineer herself, McCoy’s young career has taken her to Chile, Zambia, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, where she’ll soon return to study as a Rhodes Scholar.
“I’ve always had an idea in my mind of what a Rhodes Scholar should be and I don’t feel like I fit that mold, so I’ve somewhat been in a state of shock since they told me I won,” she said.
The Rhodes Scholarship is widely recognized as the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world. McCoy, a native of Dallas, Texas, who earned a bachelor’s in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Georgia Tech in May 2012, will pursue a Master of Science in Environmental and Chemical Engineering by Research at Oxford University.
McCoy’s trajectory over the past five years has been slowly building to this pinnacle fellowship. She came into Tech as a President’s Scholar, where she created a mentoring program that she then served in for three years. She was a leader in AIESEC and, after working abroad, returned to Tech to truly begin her social entrepreneurship endeavors by founding Enterprise to Empower (En2Em).
Dori Pap, assistant director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (ILE), got to know McCoy through En2Em. “As their faculty advisor I had the opportunity to witness up close Melissa’s genuine ability to inspire and rally people in support of an important cause, and secure the necessary resources to deliver results,” she said.
From there, it was only a matter of time before McCoy began launching ventures outside of campus. With three other Tech students and alumni, she founded Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics (TOHL) in 2011, which developed an efficient, economically viable solution for getting water to remote places, particularly during disaster relief.
“After living through the 2010 Chilean earthquake and seeing communities go without water for weeks, I appreciated the need for water solutions that quickly service large communities for sustained time periods,” McCoy said in her Rhodes application.
TOHL went on to earn $40,000 from the Chilean government to participate in Startup Chile in 2012, as well as second place in Georgia Tech’s Ideas to SERVE competition. At the same time, McCoy competed for TOHL in Village Capital, a 10-week, $50,000 social enterprise incubator competition. TOHL also recently earned $75,000 at the Tech Awards gala in Silicon Valley.
Aside from TOHL, McCoy’s global reach has included serving as a consultant to Partners in Performance, where she’s currently working on an assignment in Mexico City to reduce costs and optimize the supply chain at a gold company, as well as with Zamrize, a Zambian venture founded by fellow Tech alumna and Rhodes Scholar Joy Buolamwini last year.
Stateside, McCoy has worked in engineering for both BP and Shell Oil Company, and received a certificate in Entrepreneurship and Technology from Singularity University, a competitive Silicon Valley post-graduate educational opportunity focused on empowering leaders to address humanity’s grand challenges. There, she helped develop Authentise, a patented software platform that lets users access proprietary 3D printing designs and earned 100,000 GBP from the U.K. Intellectual Proprietary Office.
The combination of all these experiences, especially zeroing in on social enterprise, led to McCoy’s decision to pursue a graduate degree in engineering.
“I felt that things would have been a ton easier if I had a stronger technical skillset and product development experience,” she said.
Still, McCoy has been acknowledged by numerous campus entities for her entrepreneurial spirit and drive. She’s been recognized by the Student Government Association, Society of Women Engineers, and Omicron Delta Kappa, to name a few.
Even the Rhodes Trust has had its eye on McCoy before — she first interviewed as a finalist two years ago.
“I didn’t have as strong of a sense then as I do now of who I am and what direction I want to take with my life,” she said. “I’m actually glad I wasn’t chosen then because there was a lot I needed to explore about myself and the real world.”
Personal growth is typical for students aspiring to attain awards such as the Rhodes scholarship, whether or not they ultimately win.
“Working on an application for a national award is a process that requires a student to look inward as well as ahead,” said Karen Adams, associate director of the Fellowships Office. “Students do not know what they will do the rest of their lives, but they do need to have a plan for what they will do during the award and afterward. They need to look ahead at the ‘first chapter of life’ since that process is easier than trying to plan the rest of life.”
McCoy will continue the next part of that “first chapter” when she relocates to Oxford next fall. She’ll work on a research project focused on problems with water management and purification, with the goal of removing heavy metals from water, and hopes to expand the scope to include additional mechanical and electrical engineering themes, finally combining many of her passions in one project.
“I’ve felt for so long that I’ve been torn between classes and work, and entrepreneurial and tech creation projects, and now I can combine them,” she said. “I’m blessed that I’m coming into this program with enhanced perspective on the world and what I can do to change it.”
It’s at this intersection of cutting-edge technology and international service where McCoy thrives.
“Melissa’s aspiration is to use her passion for improving the human condition, pair it with her outstanding education, and with her ability to lead and inspire people, to create and deliver much-needed solutions for the developing world,” Pap said.
This is the second straight year the Rhodes Trust has awarded one of its prestigious scholarships to a member of the Georgia Tech community, which has had four Rhodes scholars since 2002. McCoy is one of only six from public institutions to earn the award this year.