Their business ideas ranged from a pecan-milk product to an urban beekeeping operation to an undergraduate think tank to an all-natural insecticide. In front of judging panels at the 2015 UNC Social Entrepreneurship Conference, held February 11th at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, student competitors from each of UNC’s 17 campuses pitched their plans for businesses designed to create positive social change.
Sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co., the event challenged students to identify pressing issues facing their communities and imagine innovative, financially sustainable ways to tackle them. In its third year this year, the conference attracted a record 44 teams—27 at the undergraduate level and 17 at the graduate.
“We’re trying to find a way of blending students’ natural inclination to want to change the world with the desire of businesses to hire students with the skills to get things done in the real world,” said Leslie Boney, UNC vice president for international, community and economic engagement. “This competition gives students the experience of thinking clearly, writing clearly, presenting clearly and moving a project from a start to some kind of finish.”
Plus, he added, it gets students in the habit of identifying societal problems and trying to find solutions.
During the competition, students pitched their ideas to panels of judges from the business and nonprofit community in North Carolina, including Rodney Hood and Marty Kotis of the UNC Board of Governors (and JP Morgan Chase and Kotis
Properties, respectively), Mark Rostick of Intel Capital and Mikki Sager of the Conservation Fund.
In the preliminary round, teams had four minutes to pitch their ideas and four minutes to answer judges’ questions. In the final round, the top ten teams from the preliminaries (six undergraduate, four graduate) had three minutes to pitch their ideas and three minutes to field questions from a new set of judges.
Keeva Kase, executive director of Bull City Forward, a Durham-based organization that supports socially conscious start-ups and nonprofits, served as one of the three final-round judges.
“This event is a rallying cry to our state to say we have to figure out novel ways to address seemingly intractable and chronic social issues, no matter how small they are,” Kase said.
“The groups that made it through were representative of a palate of what North Carolina has to offer—everything from oral health innovations to foster care services to [agricultural] products like CannaMix,” he said. “These young people are solving problems that are priorities to North Carolina and the UNC system of higher learning.”
The Social Entrepreneurship Movement
While the term “social entrepreneurship” first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement has gained momentum in recent years, especially as governments have declined in their abilities to address social ills. Well-known examples of social entrepreneurship at the national level are Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank, which offers microloans to help women in poverty start their own businesses, and Tom Szaky’s TerraCycle, which provides free waste collection programs for hard-to-recycle materials. (Both Yunus and Szaky were past keynote speakers at the conference.)
Because social entrepreneurship uses the principles of business to address societal problems, it’s a departure from the social-change model many people are familiar with, Kase said.
“These young people are in a new landscape,” he said. “I grew up in the civic engagement-volunteer-community involvement space that was more about charity.” Today’s business-oriented approach, however, enables change-makers to escape the begging mentality and take on social issues from a position of financial strength. “Now it’s really about doing good by doing well,” he said.
In North Carolina, social entrepreneurship activity is steadily expanding. The number of Benefit Corporations (aka B Corps), or businesses certified for their social and environmental consciousness (the equivalent of the Fair Trade certification in coffee), is growing each year. And the universities are stepping up to the challenge of preparing students to operate within the new parameters.
“Without a doubt, the University of North Carolina’s biggest contribution to the state of North Carolina is its graduates,” said UNC President Tom Ross. “Our faculty and staff are working to prepare our students for a world that will be changing faster than any time in our history.”
Currently nine campuses offer entrepreneurship degree programs through centers and programs like the Center for Entrepreneurship at Winston-Salem State University, the CUBE hub for social innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Campus Y and the Social Entrepreneurship Program at North Carolina State University. In the 2013-2014 academic year, the UNC system produced 102 entrepreneurship-related majors, 93 minors, 90 concentrations and 71 certificates.
As the student teams competed at the 2015 conference, panels of seasoned social entrepreneurs discussed various aspects of social enterprise in North Carolina.
“It is no longer enough to have a high purpose—to wear Birkenstocks and eat granola and hope it all works out,” said panel moderator Kevin Trapani, founder and chief executive officer of The Redwoods Group, a socially conscious provider of commercial specialty insurance based in Morrisville, NC. “All of us have to compete for capital in a world of precious resources.”
“This isn’t about dabbling anymore,” Trapani continued. “The circumstances of social injustice we face today are absolutely overwhelming. And if we believe business can be a powerful force for positive social change, it can’t be incremental; it has to be transformational.”
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 and $5,000, $3,000 and $1,000 at the graduate level.
A team from Fayetteville State University places first in the graduate competition for its proposal for CannaMix, a patent-pending insecticide made of cannabis seed.
In the undergraduate competition, students from the University of North Carolina at Asheville took first with a proposal for Pro(TECH)t, a wearable wristband designed to prevent sexual assault on college campuses by sending a GPS location to police when activated.
“We were determined coming into this that even if we didn’t place, we wouldn’t stop with what we’re trying to do,” said Pro(TECH)t’s Madison Eddings after the competition. “But winning was amazing, and it invigorated us to keep on going as fast as we are.”
UNC-Chapel Hill students won second place with Native Beverage, a company that produces a sustainable, pecan-based milk alternative that meets the needs of dairy-intolerant consumers and could provide valuable income to struggling farmers in eastern North Carolina.
And a team from Fayetteville State University placed third with its proposal for Lovely’s Helping Hands, a fee-based service that would provide transportation and pharmacy and grocery store pickups to the elderly or immobilized.
“I have a huge sense of pride right now,” said Alita Baggett of Lovely’s. “We were not the winner, but we were close. It’s some great motivation and encouragement to let us know we’re on the right track.”
In the graduate competition, another FSU team finished first with its proposal for CannaMix, a patent-pending insecticide made of cannabis seed. According to the lab tests to date, the all-natural insecticide appears safe enough for human consumption (though not intended for it) and as effective as the chemical pesticides currently used in agriculture.
“The insecticide market generates over $2 billion a year in the U.S. alone,” said Marin Rachev, one of the CannaMix team members. “It may surprise you, but currently there are no safe, all-natural alternatives in this market.”
A team from WSSU placed second with TEAMUP, a program designed to help teenagers in foster care exit the system by teaching them the leadership and entrepreneurial skills they need to succeed in college and the workplace.
And students from UNC Pembroke finished third with their strategy to expand the dental care services St. Joseph of the Pines, the Pinehurst, NC-based provider of aging services, which operates a mobile health clinic in a retrofitted tractor-trailer.
After the winners had been declared, Boney encouraged all 2015 participants—those who won and those who didn’t—to use what they learned through the competition as a launching point for their future endeavors.
“I hope you will see today’s conference as a kickoff to a lifetime of believing that it is your responsibility to invent your own future and to solve the problems of your community, your state and the world,” Boney said.
“You can change your community; you can change your state; and you can change the world,” he said. “And if you don’t, who will? We need you.”
Homepage caption: Students from the University of North Carolina at Asheville take first place in the undergraduate competition with their proposal for Pro(TECH)t, a wearable wristband designed to prevent sexual assault on college campuses by sending a GPS location to police when activated.
Story written by Christina Cooke.