Meet 2019 NGen Award finalist Megan Jacobs

Meet 2019 NGen Award finalist Megan Jacobs

// By Jacqueline Brennan

Voting is open for the 2019 NGen Leadership Award through Friday, August 23 at 11:59pm PDT.

Once the votes are counted, this year’s winner will be announced at Upswell this November. Here’s a heads up: Selecting just one winner from our six finalists will be tough. Each is an amazing changemaker who has made great strides toward transformative social impact in the communities they serve through collaborative leadership.

To help you make your decision, we asked each finalist to tell you a little bit about themselves, what drives them, and why the work they do is important.

So meet Megan Jacobs, Managing Director, Product, with the Truth Initiative in Washington, DC. Their groundbreaking text message program is designed to help young people quit vaping and “live their best lives addiction free.”

Q: Who or what inspires you – and why?

MJ: I have always been inspired by my Grandma Syl. She earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in an era when it was incredibly rare for women to pursue education to these levels. She was a teacher and school principal, beloved by her students and colleagues. I admired her kindness, her generosity, her wisdom, her sparkle. She was honest and candid, witty and current. She made you feel special. I strive to live to the standard she set. It would be an honor to be remembered by those whose lives I touch in the same way that her memory lives on for me and others who knew her.

I am also tremendously motivated by my mom, who demonstrates sensitivity, creativity, and great fun in all aspects of her life. She always made her joy in parenting so clear, so obvious and constant, that it made me both want to be a mother myself and also confident that I would be a great mom.

Q: What does changemaker mean to you?

MJ: A changemaker is someone who exerts leadership or demonstrates their personal commitment to a cause in a way that cultivates knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in others that ultimately results in meaningful, measurable impact.

Q: Other than the announcement of the winner of the NGen Leadership Award, what are you most looking forward to at Upswell?

MJ: At Upswell, I’m eager to meet others who are making meaningful change in their communities and our country. I’m looking forward to learning from the experiences of others and exploring how I can apply those insights to my own work at Truth Initiative in helping smokers, vapers, and all tobacco users quit.

Q: What is the most personally meaningful action/protest/campaign that you have participated in?

MJ: Mrs. Primeau, my second-grade teacher, extolled the value of letter writing to spur change.

That same year I was in her class, General Mills came out with a new seasonal version of their popular Lucky Charms cereal, called Holiday Lucky Charms. It featured the traditional cereal bits, with marshmallows in the shape of Christmas trees, stockings, ornaments, and other Christmas objects. I was incensed.

In my after-school religious school, we had spent the early part of the academic year learning that throughout history, Jews had been repeatedly ostracized and labelled “others.” This stigmatization had taken many forms over the years, but one approach was to cast symbols of the dominant religion as “normal,” thus making Jews appear abnormal by not adhering to them. And here it was happening again in 1992, (albeit without the horrors of the Inquisition). After all, there were no Channukah menorahs, or Kwanzaa kinaras featured; only Christmas symbols got to represent “Holiday.”

I started a letter-writing campaign to General Mills, urging them to either change the marshmallows to universal winter shapes (such as snowflakes or snowmen), or simply call the product what it was: Christmas Lucky Charms.

I wrote letter after letter, in painstaking handwriting on loose-leaf paper. This was the early 90s and I was eight years old; there was no email to send or online feedback form to fill out or Twitter outrage to stoke. I shared my feelings with my Hebrew school class, and encouraged them to write letters, too, despite hearing nothing from General Mills.

Months later, after bike riding one afternoon, my mom handed me a thick envelope. I tore into it. Dozens of coupons for cereal fluttered out of a folded letter, hand-signed by a General Mills executive, thanking me for sharing my passionate views about how Lucky Charms was impacting our society and stoking anti-Semitism.

That following winter, General Mills released “Winter Lucky Charms,” featuring six marshmallows: an icicle, a snowman, a purple-and-yellow giftwrapped box, a Christmas tree, a mitten, and a snowflake shaped like a Jewish star. I considered it a personal victory.

In the overall scheme of my life, and the numerous population-level public health campaigns I’ve worked on since then, this letter writing campaign may seem childish, trivial, or irrelevant. But in many ways, it inspired in me a sense of empowerment that anyone with conviction, dedication, and a willingness to try to persuade others can make a difference and see real change. I carry that lesson with me still.

Q: In one sentence, how would you capture your core values?

MJ: “You were born with wings.” – Rumi

Q: What leadership qualities do you think are most important for emerging leaders in the charitable community or working for social impact to develop?


  • Intrapreneurship – Innovating and leading within the framework of your nonprofit and developing new systems to make true impact on others both in and out of the organization.
  • Agility – Having the deftness to change course when circumstances demand it; working creatively with limited budget or other constrained resources; not being afraid of setbacks on the path to progress, but rather seeing those as opportunities to learn and evolve.
  • Cross-disciplinary – Collaborating with subject matter experts; connecting the dots between internal and external efforts/individuals and pulling them together to make the most powerful product; recognizing that we are stronger together as diverse teams.
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