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Harvard Undergraduate Business for Good Competition Improves Its Strategies Along the Way

   /   Sep 26th, 2011News

More and more, university students in the US and elsewhere are using their knowledge and drive to launch social enterprises right out of college instead of waiting until their careers are more established. And competitive fellowships like one with Echoing Green, which offers its fellows seed funding, technical assistance, and community mentorship, have become crucial support structures for rising entrepreneurs.

One group of students, members of Harvard University’s Undergraduate Women in Business club, spawned their own competition for undergraduate social entrepreneurs. And they are learning along the way that crafting an effectively rewarding competition can be a difficult endeavor to pull off.

In its third year, the club’s Business for Good competition is hoping to attract applications from undergraduate women or fifty-percent female teams that have proposals for businesses with social impact or social responsibility at their core. They are accepting applications from September 1 to October 15, and participants who apply by October 1 will be paired with a mentor, from Harvard’s business school, even if their proposal does not end up a finalist. The finalists will participate in the Intercollegiate Business Convention and present their proposals in front of a panel of judges. The winner will receive a $1000 prize, sponsored by Northern Trust, an investment and banking solutions consultancy.

The competition has evolved as its organizers have learned what works and what doesn’t. And the experience has not been rewarding for all involved.

Lauren Braun took the prize of the 2010 Business for Good competition with her patented design for Almasana, a children’s bracelet that helps parents keep track of immunization schedules. She conceived the project while volunteering at a rural public health clinic in Peru. The government of Peru was providing free immunizations for children, but often parents in more remote parts of the country would forget when their children were due for a shot. At the clinic where Braun worked, trained nurses had to take hours of their day going around mountainous villages looking for parents to give them reminders.

“I thought, what if there was some device that could facilitate the whole process,” Braun told Dowser. “The idea for a bracelet popped into my head and I drew a quick sketch and showed it to some nurses there. They thought it was a great idea.”

At that time, Braun was a full-time student at Cornell, majoring in human development with a double minor in inequality and global health. A year after volunteering in Peru, Braun had developed a plan for bringing the bracelet from the idea stage to reality. She then began taking business classes to develop her project and, exercising caution, asked her professors to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Winning the Business for Good competition in fall 2010 helped Braun get some publicity for her business idea, she said. But overall she was underwhelmed by the event and the competition overall.

For one thing, the competition didn’t offer any monetary reward, and Braun had to pay her travel expenses to attend.

Even more frustrating, Braun said she had to repeatedly remind the competition’s organizers to fulfill their promises to her once she had been declared the winner. When she applied, the competition promises that the winner’s project would be publicized in a “Harvard publication” and connected with “a mentor.” After Braun reminded the organizers of their promises, she said, they did help her connect with a graduate student in Harvard’s Business School who could have been a potential mentor, but the relationship didn’t flourish and proved unhelpful. After being prompted, the organizers also posted an announcement of Braun’s win on their website, that being the “Harvard publication.”

Lauren Braun, the 2010 Business for Good winner

“It would have been awesome to have a financial reward,” said Braun. But Braun’s project moved along regardless of the lack of funding. By spring 2011, as Braun finished her senior year at Cornell, she had received a US patent-pending status, and she began publicizing her idea and meeting with people who could help her in the pharmaceutical and health industries.

Danielle Kolin, the current co-president of Business for Good who served during last year’s competition as the Business Education Chair, reflected on how the competition has evolved through observing its own successes and setbacks.

Kolin highlighted the organizers’ enthusiasm about the final pitch event in front of the panel of judges. “This is an important step because in the social enterprise world, it’s important to be able to sell yourself, pitch your company, make your case in words,” she told Dowser.

Additionally the organizers are pleased that the number of applicants doubled from the first year to the second, reaching thirty-five in 2010, and coming from four different countries.

Marketing has been one the competition’s strengths, said Kolin. In 2010 they set out to spread word about the competition by targeting philanthropic clubs at universities, focusing on places like Stanford that are known for having an emphasis on social entrepreneurship, and contacting specific professors at these schools, as well as reaching out to organizations like Ashoka.

And Kolin said that the organizers, like Braun, also wished that there could have been financial reward in past years.

“Last year we were looking for a way to offer a monetary prize but we weren’t able to secure that, which was a disappointment. One applicant came all the way from Ghana and funded it herself. Our winner came from Cornell and also funded her own travel. We can’t even fund our speakers’ travel,” said Kolin.

And many applicants did benefit from the process of applying and, if they became finalists, pitching their ideas or meeting mentors, said Kolin.

“One of our finalist teams was very impacted by meeting her mentor,” said Kolin. As a result of discussion with her mentor, that team changed their organization’s name and altered its angle to better target people they wanted to reach.

It seems that there’s a good chance the Business for Good competition will continue to build momentum and innovate new ways to benefit its finalists. As with any social enterprise, here the key to success will be learning along the way.

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