“Go change the world”
From class project to startup: NIU students strive to solve social issues through entrepreneurship
Dennis Barsema gave a simple set of marching orders to the 23 students enrolled in his fall 2011 course on social entrepreneurism: Go change the world.
More precisely, they were instructed to create a product or service that could improve the lives of the less fortunate—whether in their own backyard or thousands of miles away—and then craft a comprehensive, feasible business plan to turn that idea into a reality.
“I know from living in the startup world myself that it can take 15 weeks just to come up with an idea, let alone write a business plan and prepare a presentation for investors,” Barsema said. “But I figured, instead of talking about the social entrepreneurs in the world, let’s be social entrepreneurs.”
For most of the teams, coming up with an idea was the easy part. Each chose an issue its members were passionate about, often drawing upon their own lives for inspiration.
The Light Up Africa team, for instance, was inspired by teammate Alan Hurt’s stories of people he met in Africa who were horribly scarred when the kerosene lamps in their homes exploded. Onassis Rivera helped the New Horizons team pick a direction by sharing stories of how his mother struggled to start a business to support her family.
The students quickly formed six teams, and within a few weeks had defined their ideas: Appropriate Technologies proposed building and marketing a device to provide a source of safe drinking water in the slums of India. Holistic Innovations proposed creating a company to work with universities to develop on-campus sources of organic produce. Light Up Africa proposed building and marketing a device, called the Zoom Box, to provide safe, portable, and affordable electricity in the Third World. New Horizons proposed creating a company to assist under-educated immigrants in launching companies in America. Open Door proposed creating a company to provide job skills training to the homeless in Rockford. Revolution Cosmetology School proposed creating a beauty school to train individuals with learning disabilities for careers in salons.
Of course, teams experienced a few false starts along the way. One had to abandon a vision for promoting solar energy in America when confronted with regulations governing the industry. Others had to downsize their ideas. “We started with the goal of ending world hunger, but we scaled it back quite a bit,” said Jonathon Kite of Holistic Innovations.
With their concepts in place, the teams turned their attention to writing business plans, quickly learning that moving even the noblest ideas from concept to reality requires countless hours of hammering out details. That process was especially difficult for the non-business majors in the class, whom Barsema specifically recruited to bring a diversity of ideas and viewpoints to the team. The class included 10 business majors, eight engineering majors, and five students from the NIU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“You come in thinking that you know everything, but this class humbled you,” said Light Up Africa’s Alan Hurt, an engineering major. “It’s like putting together a puzzle. And then, just when you think you have it right, somebody comes along and shoots it down.”
While he hadn’t anticipated spending so much time on business fundamentals, Barsema enjoyed the process. “I think the non-business students learned a lot—they soaked it up like sponges.”
Of course, even the business majors were surprised by the level of work the class demanded. “There is so much to consider when starting a business. I’ve wanted to create a company since I was a kid, but I had no idea that it was so complex. It’s a staggering amount of work,” said senior marketing major Dan Carqueville, of the Appropriate Technologies team.
This is not only a great idea for a business, but one that will have a far-reaching impact. It could touch millions of lives. –Dennis Barsema
Helping all of the students grasp the concept of social entrepreneurism, and what it takes to succeed in the field, were guest speakers with records of accomplishment. Speakers included the founder and president of a Chicago-based social enterprise incubator, and Molly Fisher, founder and executive director of PEACE MEXICO. Barsema also drew upon the skills of other faculty in the NIU College of Business, recruiting Mark Rosenbaum and Ursula Sullivan from the marketing faculty to teach about market research and presentation skills, respectively.
Some of the most important lessons students learned, however, had nothing to do with business skills. “Dennis repeatedly told us that the only difference between our lives of privilege and the lives of the destitute around the world is latitude and longitude,” said Carqueville. “They didn’t do anything to put themselves in their situations; it’s just a matter of chance. He taught us that because we are fortunate, we have an obligation to serve them. I still think about that every day.”
That sort of motivation kept teams pressing to the deadline. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Barsema also put up a $10,000 cash prize to be used by the top team as seed money to help them launch their company. A mock-up of the check was on display on December 8 in the NIU Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, where the teams took turns pitching their ideas to a panel of three veteran players in the world of social entrepreneurship—Nick Rosa, of Sandbox Industries, a Chicago-based company that specializes in helping entrepreneurs launch businesses; Jennifer Mitrenga, a senior vice president at Opportunity International, which fights poverty through microloans; and Amanda Britt, the founder and CEO of the social enterprise incubator named Panzanzee.
At the end of the night, the judges proclaimed the presentations so good that selecting the top team was a difficult proposition. “I was taking notes on their presentations, things I took back to show some of the people we work with how it’s done,” said Rosa.
Taking home the top prize was the Light Up Africa team, which included Hurt and accountancy majors John Harkness, Mike Sutarik, and Jason Schwebke. “This is not only a great idea for a business, but one that will have a far-reaching impact. It could touch millions of lives,” Barsema said.
The team is working to make that happen. The victory launched them into a whirlwind of activity. Since claiming that prize, they have also competed in a social business case competition sponsored by Oxford University, a process that allowed them to edit their 36-page business plan down to 10 pages and revamp their entire distribution strategy in the process. They also participated in the Global Engagement Summit at Northwestern University, where their proposal drew praise from participants drawn from 11 countries. They also made it to the semi-final round of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, an online competition that could ultimately help them secure up to $50,000 more in seed money if they make it to the final round in June. For good measure, Hurt also significantly redesigned their prototype.
All of that work was accomplished as some team members worked to wrap up college classes while others started jobs. All still intend to see the Zoom Box become a reality. The team truly believes the product has the potential to touch the lives of 1.4 billion people worldwide who can benefit from the device.
“We remain committed to the project,” said Hurt, who graduated in May and plans to be on the ground in Africa within a year. When he is not busy handling logistics for the World Food Organization, he will investigate manufacturing sites and distribution systems.
Several other teams also hope to bring their plans to fruition. Jonathon Kite, a communications major, already took his team’s plan to an angel investor event in Michigan. He received positive feedback, but no funding. Still, the team remains undeterred. “One of the things Dennis preached was fail fast, because you learn from your failures, not your successes,” Kite said.
While the organic farming plan has been shelved for now, Kite has written a business plan for another venture that would help charitable agencies get the publicity they need to keep funding flowing.
“I developed that business plan based on exactly what I learned from Dennis Barsema,” Kite said. “I learned so much from that class. In a semester, each of us created a company—with the help of brilliant, experienced people to guide us. That just doesn’t happen at any other school that I am aware of.”
Sriranjita Settaluri, an M.B.A. student who was inspired by memories of watching the poor suffer in her home country of India, believes that the class has given her skills to return there and make a difference in peoples’ lives. “I can’t afford to go into social entrepreneurship immediately, but hopefully in a couple of years I will be in a position where I can really do something for the world,” she said.
Dan Carqueville and his Appropriate Technologies teammates also hope to move their project forward. Even if that doesn’t happen, he says that he wouldn’t trade the experience of the class for anything. “It’s hard to express how useful the class was,” Carqueville said. “We went in with a lot of motivation and an idea, but when we left we actually knew how to implement it. It was an incredible experience. The difference between this class and others was that most classes teach you how to be a good employee; this taught you how to be a CEO, how to be your own boss.”
It will be years before the true impact of the class can be assessed, Barsema said. Ultimately, the ideas developed might not change the world, but every student who took the course left with the tools to make the world better some day.
“Just the fact that we had multiple ideas emerge from the class and that the students left with a passion for social entrepreneurism, to me, all of that is a success,” Barsema said. “For me it all reinforced just how great our students are and how much this generation cares about the state of the world.”