Inspired by Her Aunt, Volunteer Pitches Cleft Awareness T-Shirts – And Wins Pharrell-backed Competition

Sophia’s business pitch to make “Spreading Smiles” T-shirts won a $5,000 investment as part of Yellow’s Summer of Innovation challenge.

By Brady Hishmeh, Student Programs Media Intern

For students, summer is a time of freedom, friends and fun. Most students try to spend as much time as possible away from books and classwork before returning to their desks and studying hard for another year.

But Sophia Liu isn’t your average student.  

When Sophia found herself with lots of free time this summer due to our current socially distanced climate, the junior at Ladue Horton Watkins High School decided to enter into a contest to challenge her skills and contribute something positive to our communities.

And this wasn’t any ordinary contest, either. Hosted by Yellow, a nonprofit founded by megawatt celebrity (and Virginia Beach local) Pharrell Williams, The Summer of Innovation challenge rallied young people to prepare business pitches in hopes of receiving funding for their ideas. The challenge? Identify a problem worth solving and create a program to address the challenge, all while bringing positive change to their communities.

With Sophia’s decorated history of debating and pitching, this challenge was just another outlet for her creativity. As a national qualifier just last year for speech and debate and a state qualifier for Missouri’s DECA competition in the same year, the St. Louis teen knew she possessed the know-how and the wherewithal to tackle the Summer of Innovation.

But this was about much more than just a business pitch. It was personal.

Sophia Liu, a high schooler from St. Louis, Missouri, tells Yellow's judges about cleft conditions during her video presentation pitch. (Screengrab courtesy of Sophia Liu)

“I was inspired by a family member who was born with a cleft lip, and I wanted to pursue an opportunity that could raise general awareness for cleft conditions, with the hope of funding cleft-repair surgeries,” Sophia said, describing her inspiration for her winning pitch.

She touted her Spreading Smiles campaign: Sophia and her friend, Nicole Gorrell, will design and sell T-shirts that promote awareness and acceptance for people born with cleft conditions.

With the Spreading Smiles campaign, I wanted to ensure that first and foremost, the prevalence of cleft conditions was highlighted,” Sophia said.

The ultimate goal of the campaign: Foster an understanding and awareness for cleft conditions to prevent bullying, neglect, and isolation for our friends with cleft conditions. 

And her pitch obviously resonated with Yellow’s judges: Sophia’s Spreading Smiles campaign was picked as Yellow’s winner in the high school category, and she’ll receive $5,000 to start making her T-shirts. She even plans on donating profits from her new business to Operation Smile.

In her "Spreading Smiles" pitch, Sophia Liu wants her well-designed T-shirts to build awareness of cleft conditions and Operation Smile. (Screengrab courtesy of Sophia Liu)

Sophia first learned about Operation Smile through her aunt, who was born with a cleft condition. She became involved with the organization in 2019 by coordinating service projects in her community. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic and online school, she said she hasn’t been able to start a fundraising club with her school. That doesn’t stop a trailblazer like Sophia, though.

Sophia reached out to Jacqueline Nguyen, the Student Programs associate for the Southern Region, for some guidance on how best to offer her assistance to Operation Smile and our mission. That’s how she learned about the Summer of Innovation challenge.

And that’s how Sophia’s making a difference for Operation Smile, its patients, and people born with cleft conditions everywhere.

Brady is studying Public Health Policy at the University Of Rhode Island. He’s been involved with Operation Smile for seven years and attended a medical mission in Ethiopia in 2014.