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Students across university develop socially conscious business plans

Social New Venture Challenge unites business and goodwill

A new competition has pushed Chicago Booth students to develop business plans that focus on social impact and demonstrate a model for financial sustainability. The competition stemmed from students' growing interest in social entrepreneurship and was designed as a spin-off of Booth's capstone New Venture Challenge.

The inaugural Social New Venture Challenge brought Booth students together with University of Chicago undergraduates and graduate students at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the School of Social Service Administration. After five months of preparation, students debuted their business ideas.

Hosted by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at Booth's Harper Center, the competition featured six finalist teams vying for a $25,000 prize. Sponsors included energy giant Exelon Corporation and Ron Tarrson, '72 (XP-31), owner of Santa Fe Aero Services and a member of the Polsky Center's advisory board.

During the awards reception on May 31, dean Sunil Kumar acknowledged that the new competition indicates another dimension of opportunity for Booth students. "This adds to the diversity of opportunities at Booth," he said at the reception, surrounded by members of the finalist teams.

A nervous tension gathered as the competition's faculty advisor Robert Gertner, Joel F. Gemunder Professor of Strategy and Finance, stepped forward to announce the winners. The judging panel consisted of 14 business and social service leaders. Deliberations took about 15 minutes longer than scheduled – an indication that the decision was not an easy one. Ultimately, they decided to award one first-place prize for $15,000, two second-place prizes for $5,000, and three finalist acknowledgements.

Benjamin Glover, a first-year student in the Full-Time MBA program, dropped his head in relief when Gertner announced his team as the first-place winner. The team developed a business plan for Sound Sense Communication, a for-profit company headquartered in Long Island, New York, that will launch call centers employing visually impaired operators. This subset of the workforce is grossly underrepresented in the labor force, despite having valuable skills, Glover said. His team's research found that only 38 percent of this population has a job.

"I loved the idea of a for-profit company with a social vision to keep it truly sustainable," Glover said. "I've always considered myself a charitable person, but I don't like thinking of people as charity cases. This company offers a nice symbiotic relationship: We're not doing anyone a favor. We want these visually impaired individuals to work for us. They flat out make for better call center employees."

Going through the competition encouraged Frey Hoffman, a graduate student in the university's Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences, to ensure that outcome metrics and market analyses are an integral part of his venture's business model.

"Over many years of working with nonprofits, I've seen that the ability to achieve their mission is impeded by the lack of information," said Hoffman, who is also an owner of Freydesign Productions, a videography company with several nonprofit clients. "The thing that motivates people to social service is a personal experience or passion. It's not like the financial field where people are motivated by opportunity."

Hoffman worked with four other Booth students on Grownection, an interactive service that provides real-time updates on social services, events, and government actions on a community-by-community basis via email, web, and text messaging. The company was one of three finalists in the competition.

The full day of presentations was an eye opener for Bistra Baharova, who will be entering Booth's Full-Time MBA Program in the fall. Baharova visited the campus to witness the competition after hearing fellow admitted students talk online about Booth's rigorous emphasis on quantitative skills.

"I am glad to know this is an area Booth is paying attention to," said Baharova, who is considering social entrepreneurship in the future. "It was good to see what Booth students are doing and that it's very relevant."

—Kadesha Thomas