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Students develop, pitch social entrepreneurship projects

  • Positive feedback
    Positive feedback  Pat Austria '13 (left) discusses the Lunas project with Bobbi Dipasquale MBA '12 (right).  Photo by Skip Rowland
  • Poster presentation
    Poster presentation  Students from a social entrepreneurship class pose for a photo by a poster about their project, Message Us.  Photo by Skip Rowland
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William & Mary often boasts that its students come to the campus wanting to change the world and leave with the tools to do it.

On March 16, people attending the Mason School of Business’ first Social Entrepreneurship Conference (SEcon) saw that sentiment in action as dozens of students presented their ideas for using business strategies to bring about social change throughout the world.

Approximately 34 students – divided into small groups -- presented their ideas through posters and discussions with various business representatives in the business school’s atrium. The students’ incentive was more than just getting a good grade; they were competing for seed money for their projects, donated by some of the conference’s participating businesses.

From homelessness to emergency preparedness

The students developed the projects through one of two current courses: one in the School of Education that focuses on educational issues, and one in the School of Business that centers on social entrepreneurship.

The projects touch on a range of issues, from the achievement gap to health education.

Stephanie Felitto ‘12 and her group focused on homelessness for their “Taproot” project. The project seeks to create a community garden that would serve the homeless population.

“It would be anonymous. You wouldn’t know the person (working in the garden) next to you is homeless, but ultimately, the produce would be going to help those who don’t have a home,” said Felito. “We understand that this doesn’t completely combat the problem with homelessness, but it really is our way of having a fresh start.”

Jen Mills ’12 and Ashley Pettway ’13 helped develop “Project Bloom,” that will provide educational opportunities for children after Head Start.

“The graduates from Head Start who are about to go into Kindergarten, we’re gonna get them and give them that last little boost of education so that they are ready when they go in to read and write and do math, science – all kinds of different things,” said Pettway.

Mills added, “It looks at the whole child, so we are going to do lots of fun activities,” like science projects and physical activities – “lots of what we’re going to call ‘school is cool’ activities right before Kindergarten,” she said.

Though projects like Taproot and Project Bloom tackle issues within the United States, some of students chose an international focus for their projects.

For instance, Laura Ryan ’12 and her group focused their attention on countries where little information about sexual health is available. The students hope to begin their “Message Us” project in India.

“Basically, it’s a texting service that allows young women who have little access to information about sexual health a venue to ask questions and get reliable and professional answers,” said Ryan. “India and the other countries that we’re looking into are places where culturally talking about sex is really taboo. And so these young girls don’t have a resource; the ones that they have are either really outdated or inaccessible. So, by providing this confidential texting service, they are able to ask questions and get reliable answers.”

Pat Austria ‘13 and her group also incorporated modern technology into their project, titled “Lunas,” which means first-aid or help in the Philippines, she said.

The project would use GIS data to establish risk assessments before natural disasters. During a disaster, it would use text messaging to provide warnings and information to people directly. After the emergency, it would help find victims through text messaging and monitor the inventory of relief goods.

“Eventually the goal is to make this a national system that other countries can apply to their system as well,” said Austria. “That’s the overarching big dream, the Michael Jordan goal.”

Feedback, experience and funding

The students found the chance to pitch their ideas to businesses both exciting and challenging.

Pettway and Mills said they didn’t know, at first, that any money was at stake.

“We’re just trying to solidify our idea and make sure that it’s viable, and if money comes out of it, then that’s even better,” said Pettway. “This is just really great practice for us.”

Pettway added that neither she nor Mills are business majors, “so this is completely outside of our comfort zone.”

“But it’s great to see another side that we don’t usually get to see,” she added.

Although she’s a public policy major, Ryan is minoring in business management. She said that she took the social entrepreneurship class “trying to figure out where the two could go together.” As she prepared to give her pitch to business representatives Friday afternoon, she said that she wanted to “share what we’ve been working on and kind of get some constructive feedback.”

“There are definitely some things that we don’t know in terms of our business model, some things that we’re still trying to figure out, so hopefully this experience will open those doors for us and give us some insight onto how to make our project better,” she said.

Felitto, too, was looking forward to pitching her idea and getting some feedback – as well as that potential funding. She also knew that the experience would be invaluable.

A double major in government and process management and consulting, Felitto said that the social entrepreneurship project is just one of many ways that the Mason School of Business gets its students real-world experience that makes an impact.

“Personally, I think it’s really just a great way to learn,” she said. “It’s hard to teach business skills, so I think I’ve really benefitted from actually finding out what the costs are and talking to people and learning those skills to get things done.”

‘They’re amazing’

As the conference attendees circulated through the atrium Friday afternoon, listening to the students’ pitches and looking through their posters, Bobbi Dipasquale MBA ’12 stopped at the Lunas poster to hear more about the project.

After the four students finished their fluid presentation, seamlessly taking turns to discuss different aspects of the project, Dipasquale exclaimed, “This is awesome.”

She then told them about the “Develop” program offered through NASA’s applied sciences program, which might be interested in Lunas.

“(Through Develop) students come in and do very similar things to what these students have done, and they come in and present to political leaders around the country,” said Dipasquale, who, though now a full-time student, has worked with NASA in the past. “They usually have science backgrounds and math backgrounds. I don’t know if they’ve ever brought anyone in with a business background, so I found it really fascinating that it’s a scientific project and these business students are working on it. NASA needs to know that.”

She added, “I think they’re amazing.”

Those were words of great encouragement to the group of students as they continued to pitch their idea that afternoon.

“It was exciting because this is something that we are all really passionate about, so to have someone understand the value of it as much as we do is really important because, right now, we have all of the tools. We know how to build the software, we have the government support. It’s just a matter of getting the funding and convincing people that this is a worthwhile cause,” said Austria, adding that they also have to convince people that they are capable of making the project a success even though they are still undergraduate students.

“A lot of people are coming up and being like, ‘Wow this is a really cool project, but you’re undergrads. I don’t know how you could do this,’” she said. “We are very passionate about what we do so to have someone come up and be very excited about it and believe in it as much as we do is really exciting.”