The Rise of Social Entrepreneurship: Transforming Students into Change Agents

Ben Rathi receives Entrepreneur of the Year award last Spring.

Ben Rathi receives Entrepreneur of the Year award last Spring.

As an incoming freshman, Benjamin Rathi had his mind set on a pre-medical path. Now three years later, he’s a business and computer science major who founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Blueprints For Pangaea, that will impact hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide by reallocating unused medical supplies.

Ben came into his college experience knowing little about entrepreneurship and admits to feeling “a bit risk averse” back then. Since, he’s been named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, and has been actively involved in entrepreneurship in a variety of roles and organizations.

“As a kid, I always admired people in Silicon Valley for being at the center for entrepreneurship in the world, for constantly pushing humanity toward something greater,” Ben says.

Little did he know, one day he’d be that very entrepreneur pushing humanity toward something better. But instead of Silicon Valley, his journey began in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan.

Higher education institutions across the country are seeing more students like Ben – young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs impatient to change the world. Many of them are already armed with the ideas, curiosity, and creativity to solve big problems by the time they sit down to hear their first lecture.

As the leading public research university, providing benefit for the greater good is part of our DNA at Michigan. And over the past several years, programs geared specifically toward social innovation and entrepreneurship have grown, mostly driven by student demand and in some cases even developed by students themselves.

“There are so many different opportunities available at the University of Michigan; different competitions, different races-to-the-finish on finding a solution for something. I really admire this program and that it allows people to come to a conclusion or solution after many months of searching for it.” Mikaela Rodkin, MBA/MS Candidate, University of Michigan, Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, and participant in the Innovation in Action competition.

So what exactly is a social entrepreneur? While definitions vary, most social entrepreneurs are simply individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.

The movement is growing not just at Michigan but across the globe. More people want more from their job than just a paycheck, and social entrepreneurship is one way to get there. In a recent nationwide study by the national nonprofit Net Impact, researchers asked graduating students in the United States what they most want from their jobs and what makes them most satisfied at work. The study found that 72% of students polled said that doing work with positive impact on causes important to them is essential or very important.

Fortunately, Michigan’s growing array of social entrepreneurship programs and competitions give students the chance to witness the positive impact their ideas and research can make in the real world. According to one Danish study, the rise of social entrepreneurship programs like these is fostering an increasingly engaging approach among students entering competitions that solve real-life issues rather than merely entertaining competitions on theoretical cases.

Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Michigan

New and growing programs at U-M are driving social innovation and transformation in various fields including education, health, environment and enterprise development. Anchored in U-M’s top schools and colleges, most programs require a multidisciplinary approach and are open to all.

Innovation in Action: Solutions to Real World Challenges
The Innovation in Action competition at the School of Public Health harnesses the talents of Michigan students to address real-world problems. Now in its third year, the competition has expanded from its original public health focus to include a new education track. The five-month long program equips students with an innovator's toolkit in a supportive environment where they combine these skills with their creativity and passion to make an impact. Teams compete for cash prizes of up to $10,000 for their venture. Past student teams have found solutions to access to fresh food, improving the breastfeeding experience, and creating meaningful connections and relationships. “Often times, we think when I’m a practicing pharmacist, or when I have a real job then I can start helping people. But really, we’re helping people now,” says School of Pharmacy student Stephanie Burke, whose team developed a culturally-tailored diabetes community group for Native Americans modeled after the traditional talking circle.
Ross Center for Social Impact
The Center for Social Impact at the Ross School of Business has a host of programs that prepare and inspire leaders to solve complex social challenges, with plenty of multidisciplinary and cross-sector opportunities. Each year the Center for Social Impact hosts the Social Impact Challenge, and partners with a social impact organization in Detroit to tackle a live case with U-M students in the winter term. Last year, the Center also launched the Social Impact Track of the Michigan Business Challenge with the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, which gave students access to a prize pool of $17,000 to social enterprise business plans and a chance to win $50,000 in total prizes. Social entrepreneur and business student Ben Rathi’s team Blueprints for Pangea took home the top prize at last year’s social impact track. The Center also funds Ross MBA’s to travel across the country to build strategy and capacity for urban social entrepreneurs, embeds students with Detroit-focused social enterprises for a year, and provides internships for social entrepreneurs to build their businesses.
LSA optiMize Social Innovation Partnership
A model of innovation itself, the optiMize partnership at the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts was started by students who didn’t want to see great ideas left behind when class ended. The way it works is simple: Student teams apply with ideas for social impact each fall. Over the next seven months, teams attend a series of workshops where they work alongside and learn from one another, while alumni and local entrepreneurs serve as mentors. The winners are then selected by a group of past participants, and funded by the university to spend the summer building their startups and nonprofits. That funding totaled more than $100,000 in 2015. For students whose projects proceed, they have a unique chance to make meaningful, lasting contributions to the local, state, national, and international communities. And they do. Past projects include an urban-farming initiative that in three years has produced more than 30,000 pounds of fresh produce in a pay-what-you-can model in north Detroit; a collection system that has shipped more than $1 million in unused medical supplies to Ghana; and an ed-tech company to teach children history through the stories of women.
Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies
Launched in September of 2009, the Social Venture Fund is the first student-led impact investment fund, focusing exclusively on U.S. based, for-profit social enterprises and is dedicated to pursuing continued innovation in impact investing. It invests up to $50,000 in early stage companies that generate both financial and social returns. The best part? The Social Venture Fund is led by approximately 40 MBAs and BBAs, nearly one-half of whom are pursuing dual-degrees in education, public, environment, health, law and public policy. The Institute also sponsors the Michigan Business Challenge Social Impact Track. One of the major entrepreneurship competitions on campus, the challenge is open to all undergraduate and graduate students. Last year, ZLI teamed up with the Center for Social Impact to launch a track specifically geared to social ventures. “The Michigan Business Challenge gives students a real-world experience entrenched in the business creation process that they’ll face as entrepreneurs,” said Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. “Every year, students walk away with the tools and knowledge that broaden their skill set and help them get ahead of the competition.” The competition kicks-off in December.

While the programs above are aimed specifically at social entrepreneurship and innovation, the opportunities don’t stop there. Programs at the School of Information and Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering have several opportunities and programs that are open to students interested in making a social impact, from the NY Trek with UMSI to The Startup competition and Jump Start Grants available through the CFE. Just last year, the CFE supported more than 18 social entrepreneurship student ventures. Arts-focused enterprises with a social mission can find venture support through the EXCEL Program in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, along with an minor in entrepreneurship practicum course devoted to creating social value through the arts.

Student Groups Driving Social Change

Student energy and demand has helped build social entrepreneurship programs across campus. Several student organizations are embracing social innovation and entrepreneurship and giving students meaningful educational experiences outside the classroom while working to change their community, the region and the world for the better.

Blueprints For Pangaea
Did you know that the U.S. medical system throws away millions of pounds of completely unused medical supplies each year? Ben Rathi and a team students decided this was a problem worth solving. They began Blueprints For Pangaea as an effort to find a solution to this massive inefficiency. Now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and U-M student organization, B4P reallocates medical supplies from areas of surplus to areas in need by working with hospitals and medical suppliers in the U.S. to redirect these supplies to foreign governments and hospitals. B4P competed in optiMize’s Social Innovation Challenge and won the top prize in 2014 and won the inaugural social impact track award of the Michigan Business Challenge, one of the only undergraduate teams competing.
Enactus Michigan
Enactus is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring students to improve the world through entrepreneurial action. Enactus provides a platform for teams of university students to create community development projects that put people’s own ingenuity and talents at the center of improving their livelihoods. An annual series of regional and national competitions provides a forum for teams to showcase the impact of their outreach efforts and to be evaluated by executives serving as judges. National champion teams advance to the prestigious Enactus World Cup to experience excellence in competition, collaboration and celebration.
The optiMize student group is unique partnership linked with the program of the same name within the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and forms a community of people dedicated to solving problems that affect society. Their annual Social Innovation Challenge provides support, resources, and $100,000 for student teams to turn their ideas into impact. optiMize works with the University of Michigan and is led by a core team of students to make real-world impact an essential part of the college experience.
Everyone deserves Internet access, no matter where they live, and E-MAGINE is seeking to accomplish just that. A mix of public and private sector institutions, community leaders, educators, and students, E-MAGINE seeks to provide Internet access to rural communities and creates sustainable environments for them. The members of E-MAGINE use their diverse backgrounds and knowledge to make connectivity accessible wherever it is desired. Because the Internet is so crucial to education, the members of E-MAGINE are working tirelessly to ensure everyone is connected.
Net Impact Michigan
No matter what you study, you are capable of creating change. The Net Impact Undergraduate Chapter at the University of Michigan is a community of students of all disciplines that are dedicated to creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace and the world. Though housed in the Ross School of Business, Net Impact is open to all undergraduate students, and through those students Net Impact aims to show the world that it is possible to make an impact that benefits not just the bottom line, but the people and the planet, too.

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