Innovating for Social Change

GREENSBORO, NC — Dressed in black suits, two high school seniors from the North Carolina School of Science and Math took the stage to pitch their idea for Planning and Caring Together, or PACT, a mobile app that enables adolescent cancer patients to communicate how they’re feeling to their doctors by rating, on a sliding scale, their anxiety, appetite and energy levels, among other things.

“PACT is our digital communication tool that works to improve communication among caregiving teams and empowers patients and their families to take a more active role throughout their cancer treatment process,” said team member Francisco Coch before speaking of his team’s inspiration, a student at East Chapel Hill High School named Sophie Steiner who was diagnosed with germ-cell cancer in 2012 and died in 2013.

At the fourth-annual University of North Carolina Social Entrepreneurship Conference, held February 16th at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, the PACT team and 46 others pitched their ideas for businesses designed both to make money and solve pressing social issues facing their communities.

Sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and judged by entrepreneurs, philanthropists, venture capitalists, business owners, journalists and nonprofit leaders from across North Carolina, the conference is the largest event UNC General Administration organizes each year. It draws students from all 17 schools in the UNC system and is the only state-wide competition focused on social entrepreneurship.

Ideas at this year’s competition included Food U, a food truck from which instructors offer workshops in healthy cooking techniques to middle and high school students (to combat childhood obesity), Clutch Closet, a service that teaches college students the skills they need to land jobs and provides them with free or discounted professional attire (to counteract unemployment), and Advancing Innovative Minds, an enterprise designed to help young people shape their social entrepreneurial ideas (to support the growth of student-run small businesses).

While the term “social entrepreneurship” first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement has gained momentum in recent years. Well-known examples of social entrepreneurship at the national level are Tom’s Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to a developing nation for each pair purchased, Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank, which offers microloans to help women in poverty start their own businesses, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a certified Benefit Corporation, or B-Corp.

Leslie Boney, UNC’s vice president for international, community and economic engagement, sees the event as a way to prepare students for the world they will face after graduation. North Carolina State University economist Mike Walden forecasted that as many as 1 million jobs across North Carolina will disappear over the next 25 years as computers and robots take over jobs, Boney said.

“A lot of things that we are educating people about right now — the majors we are equipping them with and the schooling we’re giving them — are not necessarily going to map to the jobs they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives,” Boney said. “The social enterprise competition gives students an initial excuse to practice something that’s going to be really important to them for the rest of their lives — analyzing data about what’s going on around them and then coming up with a new way of looking at it,” he said. “The students in school today need to be ready for a life after college where they are going to have to constantly reinvent themselves and reinvent what they do.”

In addition to preparing young minds to innovate, Boney said, the conference provides solutions to problems facing North Carolina communities. “Communities are facing a set of challenges they’ve never had before, and they need more creative people who are thinking about new ways they could go about doing things,” he said.

Over the last decade, 12 UNC campuses have developed majors, minors, concentrations or certifications in entrepreneurship. Between the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years, in fact, the number of students graduating from UNC campuses with an entrepreneurship credential of some sort increased by 27 percent. While the largest campus increases occurred at Western Carolina University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, three campuses — Western Carolina University, East Carolina University and NC A&T— graduated their first students with entrepreneurship concentrations.

Leslie Garvin, executive director of NC Campus Compact, a nonprofit organization based at Elon University dedicated to advancing civic engagement at 36 public and private colleges and universities across the state, hopes social entrepreneurship can become even more embedded in curriculums across the state. “It is taking off on most of our campuses in pockets, but I hope it can continue to grow it as a pedagogy, as a way of thinking about academics and curriculum,” Garvin said.

THE WINNING VENTURES

In preparation for the competition, students spent months researching and developing their business plans, often with the help of their school’s faculty and staff as well as campus-based offices of the Small Business and Technology Development Center.

During the competition, team members had four minutes to pitch their ideas to judges and four minutes to answer the judges’ questions. From the preliminary round, 10 teams — six undergraduate and four graduate teams — advanced to the finals in front of a new set of judges. Additionally, four teams competed in a brand-new category dedicated to social enterprises that promote financial literacy.

The top three winning teams took home cash prizes to aid in the development of their businesses — $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 at the undergraduate level; $5,000, $3,000 and $1,000 at the graduate level; and $5,000 for financial literacy. Additionally, Queen City Forward, a Charlotte-based social entrepreneurship hub, is offering two teams a place this summer in ImpactU, an intensive accelerator program for college-age entrepreneurs with promising business ideas.

In the inaugural financial literacy category, a team from NCSSM won for their invention SonoRelief, a smartphone app that monitors stress by measuring heart rate variation and responds to high-stress periods by playing a personalized selection of calming music. The app reduces the need for expensive medications or therapy, its makers explained, by providing inexpensive, on-demand stress relief.

“SonoRelief empowers you to take back your happiness, time and health,” said team member Joshua Zhou. “Over the long-term, SonoRelief allows you to account for how stress affects your lifestyle, and in the shortterm, provides an immediately effective means of relieving your stress.”

In the undergraduate competition, NCSSM’s PACT won first place. Though Coch has been thinking about the idea since he was in eighth grade, he and his teammates have been working on it in earnest in NCSSM's Applications in Entrepreneurship class they took this school year. “It’s taken every second of time since when we started,” said team member Benjamin Fawcett. “It’s been a completely evolving project over the last couple of months; it was a complete mess for a while.”

While they intend it first for young cancer patients, they hope to one day expand it to people of all ages and with all types of chronic conditions. Most immediately, though, they’re excited to put the prize money to use. “The most frustrating thing has been just talking about the idea a bunch,” Coch said. “We’re excited to start implementing.”

Fawcett said he thinks his and his teammates’ youthfulness enables them to approach longstanding issues with cancer care in a fresh way. “We don’t have the outlook of healthcare professionals,” he said. “That helps a lot. We can see the inefficiencies and address them as outsiders as opposed to insiders.”

A team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill placed second with a new beehive design called the Honey Halo. Recognizing that beekeepers lose an average of 42 percent of their colonies each year and that part of the problem is that bees have trouble staying warm, Alsey Davidson consulted with expert beekeepers to design a round hive with removable insulation. Because the new design lacks corners, its interior stays warmer that traditional square hives, Davidson explained. Also, to facilitate conversion, the Honey Halo is compatible with the trays beekeepers currently use.

Davidson stressed how vital bees are to the ecosystem, saying, “No more bees; no more pollination; no more plants; no more animals; no more man,” and pointed out that over the last six years, more than 10 million bee colonies were lost in the United States due to colony collapse disorder. “Honey Halo is a simple solution to a global crisis; it can save so many bee lives,” she said.

In third place at the undergraduate level was a team from Fayetteville State University with a social venture called RememberMe, a sensory scrapbooking service designed to aid the memories of Alzheimer’s patients.

“While there is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s, sources like the Mayo Clinic suggest that families create a tangible bank of memories to help,” said team member Maria Taro. RememberMe customers design a “Book of Shared Remembrances” online, focusing each page on one of the five senses. On the sound page, for example, a grandchild might include a picture of himself and a recording of his voice. Once family members finish designing the book, RememberMe sends a hard copy to the Alzheimer’s patient, who can look through it to spark memory and create connections.

“Our intent is to provide a ray of sunshine and brighten quality of life of people with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones as well,” Taro said. “In addition, we will donate 10 percent of our profits to Alzheimer’s organizations so they can find an ultimate cure for this terrible disease.”

At the graduate level, MedServe, a Teach for America-like program for healthcare, placed first. By matching college graduates one-to-one with primary care physicians in rural and underserved areas of North Carolina for a two-year term, MedServe hopes to support the training of future medical professionals and improve the care resource-strapped clinics are able to offer their patients. They are piloting the program beginning in June 2016 in 20 clinics across the state.

“There needs to be an easier pathway for pre-health students to find great mentorships and hands-on clinical experience in primary care,” said team member Anne Steptoe. “MedServe impacts communities as well as impacting careers. A MedServe fellows’ presence helps clinics see more patients every week and do so with an average 20 percent improvement in quality over baseline.”

"We look forward to spreading this across the 17 campuses, so we can harness the power of the UNC system to impact the communities in our backyards, but also to harness the power of those communities to help shape young people’s education," said another teammate, Patrick O’Shea.

In second place at the graduate level was Special Pedals, a team out of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington that looks to establish a bicycle shop at UNCW to provide bicycles and bike repair and maintenance to the student population as well as employment and training for adults with disabilities. The employees of Special Pedals will receive ongoing training through UNCW’s occupational and physical therapy interns.

“The vision of Special Pedals is to build a community where adults with disabilities are employed at jobs that offer equal pay, hours and quality of life,” said teammate Leah Sherrill.

A special education major, Sherrill said she did not have much business know-how when she began pursuing the idea. “The biggest challenge for us was to be able to articulate our idea in business terms,” she said. The process of putting together a business plan, she said, “helps clarify your vision and break it down to figure out the next step. It’s motivating too. Sometimes, you don’t realize how far you’ve gotten.”

A UNCC team called the INTech Foundation placed third in the graduate competition. Noting that few of her professors or classmates in the computer science program at NC State were women, Khalia Braswell founded the nonprofit several years ago. With the aim of exciting and educating minority girls about technology, INTech runs camps at which 10- to 14-year-olds learn about the various applications of technology and get training in developing websites and apps. INTech ran four camps in 2014 and 2015 that reached more than 100 girls and led to the creation of more than 30 tech projects, Braswell said.

Braswell sees the emphasis the UNC system puts on encouraging students to be social entrepreneurs as extremely valuable. “I think we’ll see more students bridging the gap from what they’re learning in the classrooms to what they can do to impact their communities,” Braswell said. “Social entrepreneurship started with me in undergrad, but no one was around to say, ‘Hey, Khalia, you can do this as a social entrepreneur.’ Competitions like this show people that there are valuable business models around what they’re doing in the classroom and that they can connect it to the community.”

PAST WINNERS: “WE’RE GOING TO KEEP PUSHING”    

A number of the conference’s past winners are continuing to work on their ideas — and to great success.

Since winning the undergraduate division of the UNC Social Entrepreneurship Conference in 2014 with a mobile application called FreshSpire, five young women from NCSSM have continued their collaboration. By enabling participating grocers to alert consumers when they mark down fresh foods nearing expiration, the app offers multiple benefits at the same time: it reduces landfill waste, increases grocers’ profits and makes healthy food available to consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

“We attend different universities across the nation, but still working together has been a pleasure, as we’ve been able to delve into different resources around our different universities,” said Shraddha Rathod, who is pursuing computer and electrical engineering at NC State.

In October 2015, the team scored a substantial victory, winning the The Big Idea Project, which provides a Triangle-based tech startup $100,000 and six months of mentorship, office space in HQ Raleigh and professional help from marketing analysts, business strategists, product designers and developers. Over the past two years, the five young women have also won a mentorship from the Clinton Global Initiative and the Institute for Emerging Issues’ 2015 Innovation Challenge, where they were finalists and walked away with the $10,000 fan-favorite prize. With all the help, team FreshSpire is planning to launch its app this April.

“Since the Social Entrepreneurship conference about two years ago, we’ve been able to take our product to different platforms because of the motivation we gained from this conference,” Rathod said. “Without the help of our universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Math, we would not be able to be where we are now. We’ve learned so much from this process, and we’re very excited about what the future holds for us and the impact we can make through what we want to do. We’re going to keep pushing.” 

Last year, UNCA students Madison Eddings and Ben Eisdorfer won the undergraduate competition with their proposal for Pro(TECH)t, a company that manufactures a wearable wristband called the iuvo, which they designed to prevent sexual assault on college campuses by sending a GPS location to police when activated. Since last February, the juniors have incorporated their business, secured a provisional patent for the product and begun working with a development firm in Charlotte on beta testing. Additionally, they were regional finalists in the U.S. Small Business Administration's InnovateHER challenge in Washington D.C. last May and have been invited to compete in the national Student Entrepreneurship Awards in Miami this March.

Eddings and Eisdorfer are currently refining their vision for the wrist band. They have decided to make the band cellphone independent, for example, and have committed to dedicating a portion of the profits to organizations that combat rape culture. They are also looking for the funding they need to pilot the band on college campuses like UNCA. “It’s a lot of moving parts for two people to juggle,” Eddings said. “Sometimes it feels slow, but when we look back on everything we’ve accomplished, we’re proud of how far we’ve come and where we’re going."

Eisdorfer said in addition to providing the initial financing, winning the 2015 conference gave them the confidence they needed to continue pursuing the idea and a support system within which to operate. “It taught us not to limit ourselves by our ages,” he said.

Last year at the graduate level, an FSU team finished first with its proposal for CannaMix, a patent-pending all-natural insecticide made of hemp seeds. The all-natural insecticide appears safe enough for human consumption and as effective as the chemical pesticides currently used in agriculture.

Faculty advisor and biology professor Dr. Shirley Chao said since winning last year, the CannaMix team has submitted a patent application, collaborated with farmers to field test the product and engaged a number of undergraduate students in developing new formulations for a broader range of pests. Additionally, the team is benefitting from the fact that hemp became legal in North Carolina last fall.

Winning last year’s competition drew attention to FSU’s work in hemp and boosted interest in the product, Chao said. The team has received calls from both North Carolina farmers interested in supplying CannaMix with hemp seeds and in using the resulting insecticide. “I see hemp as one of our future cash crops, to replace tobacco, because of its thousands of uses,” Chao said. "Our pesticides barely scrape the surface.”

Though a number of teams are finding success with the ideas they pitched at the conference in years past, Boney stressed that the goal of the conference is not for students to walk away with social entrepreneurships that will make millions. Instead, he hopes participants will gain experience conceiving of and developing ideas.

“Most people’s first idea stinks, but in the process of coming up with it, and in the process of getting feedback from judges or faculty sponsors or teammates, they realize things, and the idea gets better, or they move onto the next one,” Boney said. “The real value of the conference is that students get practice, sometimes for the first time, coming up with an idea and developing it with input from others. To me, the practice of doing that is the most important thing.”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

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