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Class launches social entrepreneurs

January 3, 2012

Light Up Africa took home the prize of $10,000 towards their business plan.

Armed with a business plan that could provide inexpensive electrical power to families across the developing world, Team Light Up Africa took top honors in the first ever Social Venture Business Plan Competition at Northern Illinois University.

Their ambitious plan to build and sell small generator/battery storage units – which can be powered by the movement of a bicycle, boat, or even oxen – captured the imagination of judges and successfully met the challenge set forth on the first day of class when instructor Dennis Barsema challenged teams to “Go change the world.”

“This is not only a great idea for a business, but one that will have a far reaching impact. It could touch millions of lives,” said Barsema, who created and taught the class to show students how to write business plans, but more importantly to introduce them to social entrepreneurship. The class is believed to be the first college business plan contest to focus specifically on creating businesses for the social sector.

“I figured, instead of talking about the social entrepreneurs in the world, let’s be social entrepreneurs. Why read about them when you can be one of them?” Barsema said.

The six teams enrolled in the course included students from not only the College of Business, but also the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, as well as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Once assembled, the teams faced the task of compressing into a few weeks a job that can take professionals months or even years. “I know from being an entrepreneur myself that it can take 15 weeks just to come up with an idea, let alone write a business plan and then prepare a presentation for investors, ” said Barsema, an NIU alumnus who once spearheaded one of the largest initial stock option offerings in Wall Street history and who has more recently turned his attention to the social sector and teaching at NIU.

For most of the teams, coming up with an idea was the easy part. They chose projects that tapped into something about which they were already passionate. They quickly learned, however, that it takes more than enthusiasm to create a business plan.

“When we started writing the plan we realized that there were a lot of things that we didn’t take into consideration when we were just talking amongst ourselves,” said Eric Obrecht, a junior mechanical engineering major from Wayne, Ill, who was part of the Appropriate Technologies Team.

Other teams shared that same experience.

“It’s like putting together a puzzle,” said Light Up Africa’s Alan Hurt, a senior majoring in both electrical and industrial systems engineering. “You think that you have a good idea, then someone shoots it down and you have to start over.”

Providing students an opportunity to experience – and overcome – those frustrations was one of the primary reasons for the course, said Dean of the NIU College of Business Denise Schoenbachler.

“When students have the opportunity to do real projects and have some tangible experiences they become better business people and professionals,” she explained.

The opportunity to work through those problems with a cross section of students from other disciplines was particularly beneficial.

“It’s critically important for engineering students to understand the importance of business planning,” Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, who was thrilled to see students from his college participating.

The culmination of the teams’ work came Thursday, Dec. 8, when the teams presented their business plans to a panel of experts from the not-for-profit arena. The judges had to determine which idea had the greatest potential for success. For the winner, Barsema provided $10,000 in seed money so that they can work with a business incubator that specializes in social projects and hopefully move closer to launching a company.

In the end, the judges’ job was nearly as difficult as that of the students.

“There was no doubting the thoughtfulness that went into each of these ideas. The passion of the teams was exciting and inspiring.” said Judge Jennifer Matringa, senior vice president for outreach and new initiatives for Opportunity International, an organization that fights poverty through microloans. “

It was a shame that only one team could win, said Barsema, who felt that all six ideas presented held promise and that he fully expected several may eventually come to fruition. Many of the participants shared his optimism.

“We planned to pursue this, win or lose,” said business student Dan Carqueville, of the Appropriate Technologies team, who considered the class and competition to be invaluable experiences.

Jonathon Kite, a Communication Major who was part of Holistic Innovations, said that the class had opened his eyes to an entire new career path, one that extends beyond the organic gardening idea contained in his team’s plan. “Since the class began I’ve come up with four other social enterprises, and I’m already working with friends to move two of them forward. This class has provided a whole avenue of expansion for what I want to do with my life.”

Maria Torres, a senior majoring in Community Leadership and Civic Engagement through the university’s new Center for Nongovernmental Organizations Leadership and Development program, also hopes that her team’s plan (a cosmetology school for individuals with learning disabilities) will someday become a reality. That her team, Revolution Cosmetology School, fell short in its first bid for some venture capital funding, did not phase her at all.

“I’m not sorry that we didn’t win. I look forward to getting some feedback from the judges so that we can adjust our plan and try again,” Torres said. “It was a very tough competition, and I am just happy to have been a part of it. It was the experience of a lifetime.”

Other teams competing were:

  • New Horizons – A team of three students – one each from Mexico, India and Iran – were inspired to create a business accelerator/incubator to assist Latinos in DeKalb in launching businesses by helping them over come technological and language barriers. The center would be staffed by NIU students who would assist in the creation of business plans, web sites, marketing materials and more.
  • Holistic Innovations – Looking to provide organic produce for campus residence halls, this team developed a business plan to create a company that will work with universities to develop customized plans for green houses, composters (that would be fed by cafeteria scraps) and vegetable gardens. (Adam Lagerhausen, business; Jonathon Kite, liberal arts and sciences.
  • Appropriate Technologies – Looking for a way to solve the problem of providing clean drinking water in areas like Delhi, India, where electricity is often more plentiful than potable water, this team has invented a large dehumidifier to extract, filter and purify water from the air.
  • Revolution Cosmetology School – Inspired by a team member who earned a college degree despite a learning disability, this group devised a plan to launch a cosmetology school tailored to the needs of individuals with learning or hearing disabilities.
  • Open Door – Looking to break the cycle of homelessness and unemployment in Rockford, this team devised a plan to create a job skills training center to make individuals more employable, and even provide some temporary work.