UNC Conference Connects Students to Nonprofits, Community Challenges
UNC’s 2014 Social Entrepreneurship Conference challenged students on our 17 campuses to identify some of North Carolina’s most pressing social problems and then take a business-oriented approach to solving them. Held February 28 on the campus of NC A&T State University in Greensboro, the competition attracted more than 400 attendees, including 26 undergraduate teams and 14 graduate student teams from across the UNC system.
“This competition brought together three things our students need to do very well—and our state needs them to do very well—to be successful,” said Leslie Boney, UNC Vice President for International, Community and Economic Engagement. “Students need to be really insightful about analyzing information and data. They have to be really good at imagining new ways of thinking and approaching problems. And then they need to be able to refine and adjust that thinking to make sure that the ideas can work in the ‘real world.’ A competition like this that asks them to work together to solve big community problems and to put those ideas into a business plan helps them develop skills that will help them in anything they do.”
Supported by one visual aid, student teams were allowed only five minutes to pitch their business plans to a panel of distinguished business leaders that included three members of the UNC Board of Governors. They were then given another two minutes to respond to questions from the judges. In quick succession, student business proposals tackled community challenges ranging from financial literacy to sustainable agriculture to supporting struggling military families. Only six undergraduate teams and four graduate teams made it through to the final round of the competition.
In something of an upset, the high school team from the NC School of Science and Mathematics claimed first place and the $3,000 grand prize in the undergraduate category. Runner-up and third-place teams were from UNC Charlotte and Fayetteville State University, respectively.
In the graduate category, UNC Pembroke’s team won first place and the $5,000 grand prize. Runner-up and third-place teams represented NC A&T and Appalachian State University.
Both winning teams have been invited to make repeat presentations during the April meeting of the UNC Board of Governors.
NCSSM seniors Hannah Sloan of New Bern and Shraddha Rathod of Charlotte proposed FreshSpire, a mobile application and texting system that could be used to notify low-income families when fresh produce and other healthy foods are being marked down for quick sale. Individuals would download the app to their smartphones or join a text message list serve at a participating local grocery store.
“We started out with a mission,” explained Sloan, now a finalist for the Morehead-Cain scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We hate the idea of waste. We throw away tons of food weekly—and it just goes to landfills, while people in our community have nothing on the table. We wanted to connect people who might not be able to afford the food with the [grocery stores] who otherwise wouldn’t profit from throwing the food away. It benefits both the business and the consumer.”
Added Rathod: “We have an entrepreneurship class at NCSSM, and you have to have an idea before you can apply to take the class. We’ve had the idea for months and have been looking for ways to launch it. The class helped us develop a business plan to prepare for the competition.”
Sloan and Rathod plan to use their winnings to fund mobile application development. Their next step is to present to local grocers and secure participation. “The app would be marketed to corporate offices of the chains after using a proof of concept from an individual store,” explained Rathod. “If the app is approved by corporate, it would function independently in each of its stores.”
Both students said the prize money isn’t the most important thing they took away from the competition. “It was just encouraging,” explained Sloan. We had an idea, and we could actually make it happen. Our idea was validated by our faculty and by the business leaders we worked with.”
Rathod continued, “I feel like I gained a lot of confidence from the experience. I know that I can do this. And I learned about putting together a team to make things happen—playing to their strengths to improve the process.”
In the graduate category, UNCP MBA students Lewis Adams of Lilesville and Daniel Bougt of Stockholm, Sweden, laid out their plans to partner with a local non-profit to establish STARworks, an art retail shop in the Pembroke area. Their plan is built on a three-pronged strategy: create an affordable “public access” glass studio for artists; develop a glass-buying audience; and attract talented glass blowers to the area.
Bougt and Adams, who hope to stimulate their local economy by adding jobs and providing educational opportunities for the community, say their $5,000 prize will help them enter the implementation phase. Both also agreed that their faculty members played an integral part in their success.
“We worked closely with our faculty and with other students who came to present,” said Adams. “We learned a great deal from watching groups from our campus present, and they also provided us with feedback to improve our plan,” said Adams.
The conference also featured a keynote address by Tom Szaky, who founded Terracycle, an internationally known recycling company, as a sophomore in college and in 2006 was named “#1 CEO under 30” by Inc. Magazine.
The day-long event was sponsored by Wells Fargo. “We take pride in supporting some of the best and brightest students in North Carolina as they dream big about identifying and developing innovative, sustainable, business-oriented solutions for problems in our local communities,” said Stan Kelly, regional president for Carolinas Community Banking. “Our goal is to help build strong and vibrant communities, improve the quality of life, and make a positive difference." Other conference sponsors included Lincoln Financial Group and Jennifer and Kevin Trapani.
In closing remarks, UNC President Tom Ross underscored the importance of the system-wide event. “As a public University, we need to remember our obligation to serve our communities, our state, our nation, and our world,” he said. “We desperately need new ways of thinking, new approaches to old problems. We need to produce graduates who see themselves as responsible for creating the future—and who know that they have the knowledge and capacity to make it happen.”
UNC-TV Highlights Social Entrepreneurship Conference
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