As the University of Michigan’s Ross School Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Benjamin Rathi knows a thing or two about social entrepreneurship and has been actively involved in entrepreneurship in a variety of roles and organizations. However, his path has been a bit of a hodge-podge of experiences that have ultimately led him to being an innovative problem solver on campus and around the world through his nonprofit, Blueprints For Pangaea. As a freshman, Ben had his mind set on a pre-medical path. Now, three years later, he’s a business and computer science major with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that will impact hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide by reallocating unused medical supplies.
“I’ll admit,” Ben says, “my story is not linear at all.” It’s a story that begins long before he stepped foot on campus.
“As a kid I always admired people in Silicon Valley for being at the center for entrepreneurship in the world,” Ben says. “For pushing humanity toward something greater.”
Little did he know, one day he’d be that very entrepreneur striving to make an impact. But instead of Silicon Valley, his journey would begin in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan.
The summer after Ben’s freshmen year, when he was still planning on an education in the pre-medical field, he volunteered at a hospital in Nepal. Though the hospital was one of the largest and most well established in the country, during his time there, Ben noted the dismal state of the medical system.
“What I found shocked me,” said Ben.
Not only were the rooms unsanitary and overcrowded, but also they did not have enough medical supplies to treat their patients. Because of constraints on the hospital, they’d routinely reuse needles, gloves, and other supplies. After that experience, Ben came back to campus with a passion to research and help address, and perhaps solve, this unfortunately common problem. As he researched, Ben realized that not only are so many hospitals worldwide in need of medical supplies, but he also learned that in the U.S., hospitals throw away hundreds of millions of pounds of unused medical supplies each year. As he began to consult physicians about this problem, he realized that this inefficiency needed to be addressed, and, in doing so, lives could be saved.
“Inefficiency drives me crazy,” says Ben.
This idea was the beginning of what would become Blueprints For Pangaea, but Ben still had a long way to go. Thankfully, he had the help of Michigan’s entrepreneurial programs and staff and faculty advisors.
Finding Success through Entrepreneurial Programs
During his sophomore year, Ben applied on a whim to the optiMize Social Innovation Challenge. He says he found out about the program one day before the deadline. Initially, he thought applying would be a waste of time, because at that time Blueprints was only an idea and some research.
“But I thought, what the heck? Let’s just apply,” Ben says.
Over the next few months, Ben and his team learned about the importance of working collaboratively with other students concerned about solving the world’s problems—how energizing and rewarding that experience can be—and how integral it is to know how to pitch the innovative idea you have.
At the same time, Blueprints was working on forming business relationships with hospitals so they could start reallocating medical supplies. It took some time, however, because as Ben says at first, “Hospitals would respond: “No way, you’re just students.”
Registering to be a nonprofit is easy, but becoming 501(c)(3) status is another story, and until they achieved that status, most hospitals would not trust them with their unused supplies. Becoming a 501(c)(3) takes time, money, and patience. It seemed like a long way off.
In April of 2014, Blueprints walked away from the optiMize Social Innovation Challenge with $6,000, and, finally, the University of Michigan Health System agreed to let part with some medical supplies. And, the summer of 2014, Blueprints was able to become 501(c)(3) after only a few months, without lawyers, and without spending an absurd amount of money. Almost a year later, they sent their first shipment of over 20,000 pounds of supplies to a hospital in Ghana. What had started as a vague idea had soon turned into a life changing (and saving) nonprofit, with Ben Rathi leading it.
Around the same time Blueprints For Pangaea was finalizing its first shipment, Ben signed up for the Michigan Business Challenge through the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business. He gave it a shot, figuring they could at least get a couple hundred dollars. Luckily, due to his experience at optiMize, he had gotten good at pitching his nonprofit. Blueprints ultimately walked away with $15,000 from the challenge’s social impact track, co-sponsored by the Center for Social Impact at the Ross School of Business.
Social Entrepreneur of the Year
Everything thus far in Ben’s journey toward social entrepreneurship has seemed like chance and luck, but it ultimately comes down to his ability to get others on board with his dream. In the spring of 2015, Ben received an email about a luncheon at the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, telling him to come to the entrepreneurial event.
A year before Ben had learned about the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award and sent an email inquiring about the process works. When he heard back, though, it was about how a board of professors chose the student, and there was no application process. So, he forgot about it.
“I didn’t think [the event] was going to be anything, really,” says Ben, “but it was free food, and I needed a break from studying for finals. Plus, there was this small part of me that was thinking, what if…”
That “what if” feeling, however small, became a wonderful reality. At the event, Ben said the presenters started describing a kid whose story sounded an awful lot like his own, and he was startled when he heard his name called.
“It was a dream come true,” says Ben. “When I won that award, I realized I wanted to continue on in entrepreneurship. Even after Blueprints, I hope to continue. I have other ideas I still want to carry out in college. I want to help other kids with their ideas. In two years, I experienced so much personal and professional development. I became so much more confident. And I think if the world has people who understand value and communicate their value to each other, I believe the world will be a better place.”
Ben’s story is an inspiration for students who have similar dreams and wishes, but aren’t sure how to achieve them. Sometimes all you have is a vague idea, an insatiable desire for change.
“The most important thing about U of M is the ecosystem for entrepreneurs that exists here. The Michigan entrepreneurial community has helped me take the first step. We’re able to come together, to share our ideas, and that is invaluable,” says Ben.
Written by Hannah Gordon, Innovate Blue student associate.