Idea Factory

Chicago Harris students come prepared with a passion for making substantive change in the world, and a new partnership with the Booth School of Business is giving them a valuable set of skills to help them launch their ideas.

More than 30 non-Booth students university-wide, a majority of them Harris students, took part in the first-ever Social Entrepreneurship Toolkit Workshops this Winter Quarter. The program, a series of four sessions that culminated in early February, taught students how to get started with their social ventures, how traditional and social enterprises differ, and how to build business models and marketing strategies to ensure long-term impact.

“We find that our students are interested in social problems and international development, but they want to drive social change with firm footing in entrepreneurship, innovation and business methods, along with their ethical and moral imperatives,” says Jeremy Edwards, senior associate dean of academic and student affairs at Harris. The best ideas can only go so far as the people willing to develop and market them, Edwards adds. “Encouraging our students to use startup methodologies to create sustainable social change is something that we are passionate about, and our partnership with Booth to deliver these workshops is a testament to the intersection of public policy and best business practices.”

The bootcamp-style workshops also helped prepare students for the Social New Venture Challenge, a year-long competition co-sponsored by Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Social Enterprise Initiative. The SNVC, as it’s called, cultivates student interest in social entrepreneurship by challenging teams to develop viable and impactful social enterprises. A Harris-led team won last year’s competition for creating BallotReady, a free, nonpartisan online and mobile voter guide. This year’s finalists will be announced in May.

Sarah Vogt, a first-year Harris student from Waterford, Wisconsin, participated in the workshops to improve her team’s business plan for the SNVC. In particular, she says, the workshops helped ground her team so that it could realistically explore the challenges that come from launching into the SNVC and the entrepreneurship world.

“The courses really helped us determine where our project should be and how to be realistic,” Vogt says. “A lot of times, you think you have this great idea, but you haven’t thought through all of the challenges you’ll face.”

Cortney Robinson, assistant director of programming for Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative, worked closely with Andrew Dawson, special projects specialist at Harris, to develop the workshops. Robinson has observed a growing interest in social entrepreneurship among students across campus. “Harris students, in particular, are already considering things that bug them and thinking of ways to improve them,” Robinson says. “Social entrepreneurship gives them an opportunity to do that in a very straightforward way.”

Harris students are particularly strong contenders in the venture challenge programs because they are immersed in data-driven, quantitative methodology aimed at solving complex global problems. Adding the ability to develop business plans, marketing strategies and other elements necessary to launch a venture will make them, and the competitions, even stronger.

“Ventures don’t just materialize into the SNVC and win. They take a lot of work. It’s important that organizations that are developing ventures are doing so in a thorough and robust way,” says Christina Hachikian, director of the Social Enterprise Initiative at Booth. “We want to do a better job of reaching students in all schools and making them successful.”

Vogt, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, says the Social Entrepreneurship Toolkit Workshops helped her gain perspective on the intricacies and unique challenges involved with starting a social venture from scratch, which can differ significantly from other types of businesses.

“A lot of us in Harris do have ideas, but we don’t always have a strong business foundation,” Vogt says. “I was able to think about an idea through an entrepreneurial lens and learn how to build a bridge from the idea to a sustainable business plan.”

Manuel Esquivel, an MS candidate in environmental science and policy who participated in the workshops, is planning a career in environmental management. He hopes to launch a venture centered on waste management one day, and he believes the workshops have helped prepare him for the business challenges he’ll face.

“Beyond policy interest, I have a lot of interest aligned with the private sector. I wanted to understand how ventures work,” Esquivel says. “It’s a good starting point for developing an idea. Just having a good idea is simple. But you have to see if developing that idea is feasible.”

—Brian Wallheimer