This weekend at OpenGrounds, 30 aspiring University of Virginia entrepreneurs were given fewer than 72 hours to complete three months’ worth of brainstorming, research and prototype development toward creating a new business. But unlike other time-pressured entrepreneurship competitions, the ideas the groups pitched at the end of their ‘3 Day Startup’ weekend were not just companies, but social ventures – businesses aimed at not just making a profit, but improving the world.
“Social entrepreneurship is about solving a global social problem in a financially and environmentally sustainable way,” said Christine Mahoney, assistant professor of politics and public policy at U.Va.’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and faculty director of the Social Entrepreneurship at U.Va. initiative.
“It could be a nonprofit, it could be a for-profit, it could be hybrid model – it could take a lot of forms, but the No. 1 mission is solving a major problem,” she said. “It’s about how to use entrepreneurial thinking to come at that problem creatively so you’re financially sustainable.”
At the event’s kickoff, Alexis Ohanian, a 2005 graduate of the McIntire School of Commerce and co-founder of entertainment and social networking website Reddit, welcomed the students via video and encouraged them to attack the problems they perceive today.
He also suggested they surround themselves with peers who motivate them to work hard. “They might be your co-founders,” he said. Ohanian co-founded Reddit and other startups with friend Steve Huffman, a 2005 graduate of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, while they attended the University.
“Instead of looking ahead and thinking, ‘This is how the world should be in five years,’ you’ll need to come back and say, ‘How can I solve a problem for five people, then 50 people, and then 100 people?’” Ohanian said.
Throughout the weekend, teams huddled together to conduct market research and formulate business plans, and received feedback from a slew of mentors from in and around the Charlottesville community. Mentors included U.Va. faculty, area business owners and local entrepreneurs involved with i.Lab, a University-wide initiative that fosters entrepreneurship and innovation education.
Students also went out into the community and tried their ideas out on their customer base. One student tested the market for his charity matching idea by standing on the University Corner and asking for donations – asking people to pick from a list of his favorite charities in Charlottesville, donate a few dollars, and pledging to match their donations until he spent $100.
“People from all walks of life, students and adults, came up to me and were interested; I even had a homeless man talk to me about the idea and agree to donate a couple dollars,” said Garrett Gottesman, a fourth-year media studies and American studies double major. “I ended up raising more than what I’d agreed to match ... and I found that this idea for crowd-funding can work.”
The 3 Day Startup, a non-profit program that fosters student entrepreneurship and promotes clock-intense innovation at college campuses across the country, was sponsored by Social Entrepreneurship at U.Va, an initiative of the Batten School, in the hopes of preparing student entrepreneurs with a vision for social good to compete in this fall’s U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup.
“Social entrepreneurship is a buzzword that has been thrown around a lot, but the biggest thing is that the problem comes first and everything else comes second,” said Minahil Amin, a second-year student in the Master in Public Policy program in the Batten School and student leader of the Social Entrepreneurship@U.Va initiative.
“If profit is the first thing on your mind, the doing social good is going to fall to the side,” Amin said. “It doesn't mean you apply business to social problems, but you focus your efforts on doing everything you can to fix that problem.”
SE@U.Va. is an umbrella initiative that strives to bring together the best of the University’s public service mission, world-class professional schools and critical liberal arts training through a pan-University social entrepreneurship initiative. It is involved with SEED (Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development), Engineering Students Without Borders, HackCville and other innovation-based groups that bring opportunities to Grounds that help create solutions to economic, environmental and social problems.
On Sunday evening, the teams pitched their business startup plans to a panel of professionals and an audience of students, faculty and community members. The final pitches were:
- MatchGive, a website that let small donors allocate charity funds from large donors by matching a small portion of their contribution.
- S^2, a program that gives refugees skill-set training to fit the needs of their camps.
- That Thing, an improved 911 system for mobile devices.
- Aerophonics, a rooftop farming system.
- Amy’s Heels, high-heeled shoes that collapse into flats with profits donated from every pair sold.
- Dabang Noukri, which matches U.S.-based entrepreneurs with blue-collar workers in India.
All of these groups will have the opportunity to refine their ideas and compete in the Entrepreneurship Cup in November.