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Lessons Learned: How Booth’s Tarrson Fellows Promote Social Innovation
The Rustandy Center’s yearlong fellowship helps social entrepreneurs persevere through the uncertainties of launching social ventures.
- June 15, 2022
Eamonn Keenan, AB ’21
Founder of SAEF Legal Aid, Chicago
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.”
Gabriela Saade, MPP ’21
COO, LivingWaters Systems, Chicago
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, MBA ’21, MPP ’21
Cofounder and CFO of Corecentra, Chicago
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.”
Mabel Shiu, ’21
Southside Market, Chicago
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.”
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