Social New Venture Challenge: The Best Recipe

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Frederic Mahieu is a Mathematics teacher at the Lycee Francais de Chicago and an executive MBA student at Chicago Booth. Below he writes about his experience competing in the Social New Venture Challenge [SNVC].  SNVC is a business launch competition organized by the Social Enterprise Initiative and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Chicago Booth. Qualifying companies and organizations must show a focus on social impact as well as a model for financial sustainability. 

Similar to the NVC, students form teams to create a business plan and receive coaching from Chicago Booth faculty and industry experts. There are several “rounds” in the competition where teams present their business plans during live pitch sessions in front of investors. 

SNVC participant Frederic Mahieu, pictured at  Lycee Francais de Chicago, where he is a teacher. Photo courtesy of the Lycee Francais de Chicago.

Imagine you want to cook a great meal. You have all the ingredients in place, but aren’t sure how to proceed. You know you have the potential to cook the best meal ever, but it could also go terribly wrong. That’s why you need a recipe that works.

As a student looking to start my own non-profit business, I am the chef, and the best recipe I have found is the Social New Venture Challenge [SNVC] at Chicago Booth.

I have been teaching mathematics to middle and high school students for 16 years. When I first arrived in Chicago from France in 2008, I felt that something was possible in this city. The energy, the culture, the constant desire for innovation that thrives here gave me a lot of ideas. After years working on diverse projects to popularize mathematics, I decided I wanted to open a Cultural Institute dedicated to Mathematics.

You’re probably wondering what I mean by a Cultural Institute for Mathematics. You might even be thinking it’s a mistake – culture and math? Those two words don't usually go together. But yes, culture can be found in math. I envisioned an Institute where visitors can learn about mathematics in history, arts, music, architecture, finance, sports, technology and even the techniques used in animated movies. The objective is to create an emotional experience through the world of mathematics.

As my idea crystallized, I knew I had the vision, passion and community contacts to start the Institute.  But I’m a math teacher. I have none of the skills required to create a company. That's how I found myself applying to Chicago Booth last year.

Now that I’m here, I’m learning from scratch everything related to the management of a company. The curriculum is intense, but also fascinating. I’m learning all the ingredients needed to complete my “meal”: strategy, marketing, management, accounting, finance. But I needed a recipe to fully bake my idea. That’s where the Social New Venture Challenge comes in. 

Why is the Social New Venture Challenge the best recipe to succeed? 

The first thing we worked on in the SNVC was creating a compelling pitch. As a participant, you’re asked to pitch in front of other students, coaches and investors. While this can be intimidating, you really benefit from the feedback. I used it to improve my approach and content. I learned that if you want to convince others to financially support your idea it’s not enough to be passionate and committed. You also have to prove the feasibility, growth and sustainability of your business, and weave that into your pitch.

Starting your own venture is a risky business. Luckily, I found wonderful support for mine at Chicago Booth. I feel like I've been admitted into a family.  Professor Rob Gertner and the teams at the Polsky Center and the Social Enterprise Institute have been so kind with me, and everyone involved in the program has wanted to help us. We’ve been introduced to people whose backgrounds and experiences could help us, like Michael Lach, Director of STEM Education and Strategic Initiatives at CMSE and the Urban Education Institute and Barry Aprison, Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago and Outreach Director of the Institute for Genomics & Systems Biology. These relationships are precious when launching a new venture related to math and museums.

Through the SNVC, I’ve also been able to connect with the Chicago entrepreneurial community. 1871 is a center in Chicago for high-tech startups. I've been accepted to work there, and have been so inspired by the atmosphere of innovation. It's a great place to collaborate; as an entrepreneur, you're going to need designers, lawyers and even architects - and they can all be found at 1871.

I've also become involved with the Chicago Innovation Exchange [CIE]. The CIE functions as a spot where young entrepreneurs can meet and work on their projects. They also offer conferences with successful entrepreneurs daily. This have been incredibly helpful - I always leave with so many ideas. 

Finally, I think it’s important to characterize how the SNVC guides you through this process. Never during the program were we told what to do or say. The professors and coaches never tried to change our projects. This is a crucial piece of Chicago Booth’s culture: They don’t tell you what to do; they push you to be the best at what you’re doing. Through the SNVC, my project didn’t change, it just became better.  

Frederic Mahieu, '17 (XP-86) 

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