Rustandy Center-Supported Startup AIM Clinics Announces Merger
Edwardson SNVC startup AIM Clinics set to scale autism therapy to underserved communities.
For University of Chicago graduates and recent alumni who want to take the next step into social entrepreneurship, it can feel risky to launch a full-time venture.
Thanks to the Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship, the leap is a little easier.
Recent graduates chosen to participate get $25,000 in the form of a simple agreement for future equity (SAFE) (or grant for nonprofit organizations), coaching and mentoring to accelerate their growth, and a supportive cohort of dedicated social entrepreneurs facing similar challenges. Fellows must be working full time on ventures aimed at addressing a social or environmental problem. In 2021, five Tarrson Fellows were chosen to pursue social ventures solving issues related to clean water, software that drives social impact, affordable legal solutions, education, and access to healthy food. All of the fellows also participated in the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge.
Here, the 2021 fellows reflect on their challenges and accomplishments this year.
For Tarrson Fellow Eamonn Keenan, launching his justice-tech nonprofit meant offering SAEF Legal Aid’s first product: a self-help digital survey that allows users to get an understanding of their own core legal issues and receive referrals to free legal aid and low-cost legal service providers. As founder, Keenan needed to get comfortable with making mistakes—and learning from them—along the way.
Leaning on others to prevent burnout: “The thing about social entrepreneurship is it’s a space where you are constantly being confronted with problems. But the solutions take time to implement. For instance, we’ve had to pare down our feature list because we knew we did not have the time and resources to complete it all. A lot of it comes down to dealing with burnout and preventing it. You need other people on your team to help offset those problems and to take care of yourself before you can help others.”
Making the most of connections—and community: “Anytime I approach the team at the Rustandy Center, they have a connection for me. And the community of other Fellows navigating the same challenges was also such a relief. When I would see them in person, I would instantly want to talk about the challenges. Having a cheerleader that has invested in you is very validating.”
Learning the potential of entrepreneurship: “I didn’t really know until I was able to access the resources that entrepreneurship was a path to be able to focus on providing legal accessibility for those that find it financially inaccessible. All of those skills allow me to help more people.”
“I always knew that I wanted to explore entrepreneurship opportunities. And I wouldn’t have had the chance without the financial support of the Tarrson Fellowship. I don’t see any other alternatives that would have allowed me to work on starting a new venture and gain the experience.”
After founding and shuttering Leved, Tarrson Fellow Hector Mendoza Smith knew it was time to move on. But the lessons he learned while pursuing the social venture propelled and prepared him to take on a new challenge: a leadership role at GreenLight.ai, an A.I.-powered worker classification, management, and payroll platform that allows contractors and other temporary employees to be onboarded quickly.
The power of connections: “I was looking for a team where you have complementary skills and aligned values. The fellowship was instrumental for me in finding the right team for Leved. I don’t think I would have met them without the Rustandy Center. It’s a testament to the importance of networks.”
Exploring entrepreneurship: “I always knew that I wanted to explore entrepreneurship opportunities. And I wouldn’t have had the chance without the financial support of the Tarrson Fellowship. I don’t see any other alternatives that would have allowed me to work on starting a new venture and gain the experience.”
Lessons learned: “The vision cannot be super far away from the team’s ability to execute—it hinders the clarity of the next step. It’s hard to say something fails, it faded away. You either keep pushing until you figure it out or it’s time to do something else. In my case, it helped me move forward with another opportunity.”
After graduating from UChicago’s Harris School, Gabriela Saade has continued to pursue her mission of providing clean water at-home access to communities around the globe. LivingWaters Systems uses the roofs of homes to install low-cost rainwater collection systems, helping families reduce their dependency on unsafe surface and groundwater alternatives.
Tapping into the network: “Initially, we were ambivalent about randomly reaching out to UChicago faculty, but we decided to give it a chance. We reached out to different scholars, and the feedback was incredible. Professors would schedule an hourlong conversation with us and were willing to share their expertise and advice for free, with the best attitude.”
Getting the venture off the ground: “There are so many folks with great ideas to tackle social issues, but the funding, coaching, and know-how are sometimes inaccessible. We got the opportunity to test our ideas, engage in the innovation process, and try to provide a solution. For us, it was the problem of accessing water and how we could rely on rainfall—our purest form of water supply—to reach millions of people without clean water.”
Pursuing growth: “Because we had to prepare so much to pitch a complex product and create a story around it, I think I learned a lot about how to communicate something to an audience in a way that creates empathy. Recently, we received the support of the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] lab to test the LivingWaters Systems in one of their camps.”
Ani Ajith launched Corecentra while earning a dual degree from Booth and UChicago’s Harris School. The company offers a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that solves ESG-related challenges for private equity firms and Fortune 500 companies.
Supporting the entrepreneur: “Being awarded the fellowship forced me to think about my needs concurrent with the business. It’s easy as an entrepreneur to get lost in the haze and motivation to succeed and continue to prioritize the business in front of what you need and the fuel you need to keep going. We sort of end up borrowing that [fuel] from our own reserves—both financially and emotionally.”
Growing the business: “As a company, we had sort of been raised by UChicago. I took entrepreneurship classes at Booth, participated in competitions, and built a network. We had a company that existed and was already generating revenue and had customers. But it was difficult pre-fellowship because Corecentra is part of a new category in a nascent and evolving industry. They helped connect us to the right people and provided the right kind of feedback to help us mold it into something commercially viable.”
Valuable feedback: “Rarely as an entrepreneur do you get the chance to talk candidly with somebody whom you don’t have a reporting relationship with or who is not an investor or a customer. In those situations, you feel compelled to create a narrative that suits the need of the moment or project an aura of success. Once the fellowship is granted, you have resources where you can be a lot more candid and talk about the challenges you’re facing. It’s extremely valuable.”
“Having the additional funding from the Tarrson Fellowship and a support system was really reassuring in enabling me to move forward. Doing this full time, I was able to lay a lot of the foundation that’s necessary as opposed to doing this on the side.”
After graduating from Booth, Mabel Shiu used different sources of funding—including the Tarrson Fellowship, a second-place win in the Social New Venture Challenge, and a grant from the American Heart Association—to lay the necessary groundwork for her venture. Southside Market, opening its first location this year, will be a series of collectively owned micro-groceries and cafes with an average size of 1,500 square feet in underserved areas on Chicago’s South Side.
Time investment: “Having the additional funding from the Tarrson Fellowship and a support system was really reassuring in enabling me to move forward. Doing this full time, I was able to lay a lot of the foundation that’s necessary as opposed to doing this on the side.”
Opening our first store: “It will be in Chicago’s greater Chatham neighborhood sometime this year. It’s been a challenge to find a space that’s ready to move in. We believe it’s important to find the right space and be a long-term partner in the community. We are looking at a location now that we are really excited about. Nutritious food is an immediate need. The sooner we have community ownership—and the sooner we can facilitate the space—the better.”
Tapping into a peer network: “Connecting with Tarrson Fellows and other Booth alumni has allowed me to have a good network of people who care about this type of work. I recently connected with Kyle Johnson, ’19, who is doing tremendous work by working with local folks in various construction businesses and will enable our own local hiring and sourcing.”
Thanks to funding from Ron Tarrson, ’72 (XP-31), and matching funds from John Edwardson, ’72, the Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship has allowed recent University of Chicago graduates to pursue their ventures since 2017.
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