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winter 2018

My Experiences at the Sullivan Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur and Social Innovation Retreat

I have always believed that doing one good thing can spur a domino effect of helping many. What if, however, this one good thing were bigger than any single task I could do by myself, and instead was a new way of thinking about issues and pursuing innovative and sustainable solutions to create a world of social worth?

These were the questions posed to me during my time at the Sullivan Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur and Innovation Retreat. As most Wofford students loaded up their cars to go home for the weekend of fall break, I and three other Wofford students —Katie Pellon ’15, Cole McCarty ’17 and Chie Mushayamunda ’18 — packed up and headed to the Sullivan Retreat at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, N.C.

“What exactly is a social entrepreneur?”

This question was on everyone’s mind as we crossed the North Carolina border, as we entered onto the conference grounds, as we checked into our cabins and as we walked into the dining hall to enjoy the first meal with our fellow entrepreneurs for the weekend. Immediately, our questions started to be answered and we began to get a taste for what social entrepreneurship is.

Social entrepreneurs, according to the Ashoka - Innovators for the Public, are “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.” Social innovation is the process through which individuals deal with these pressing problems and practice design-thinking to create solutions, and social enterprises are the organizations who adopt this sense of social awareness and apply methods of commercial strategies to their businesses in an effort to increase social well-being rather than to increase profits for the company and shareholders.

The Sullivan Retreat fostered an atmosphere of constant discussion and exploration of these ideas. As I sat at our first dinner with a bite of pecan pie sitting on my fork and a cup of coffee warming my hand, a professor from Berea College sparked a discussion of social innovation, social entrepreneurs and social enterprises.

An example of a social enterprise is Toms shoes, this professor explained. Toms is profit driven, they sell shoes to make money, but their focus for doing what they do is mission driven. Toms is different than traditional business models in that their “why” is focused on helping the world, rather than focusing on helping investors.

Throughout the weekend we learned what social entrepreneurship is, how to launch our own ideas and be a good entrepreneur, and we were able to hear from individuals who started their own businesses.

Green Towers is an urban agricultural design company started by two recent Penn State college graduates. The company creates unconventional self-contained eco systems for use in the home. In other words, they craft furniture that also serves as indoor garden systems and aquariums that can be used to grow and harvest one’s own vegetation and fish within the home.

Amazig Leathers was started by a 23-year-old Kentucky native and is a company motivated to bring leather goods from the Imazighen artisans in North Africa to the global market. Ten percent of all profits go into a community development fund to support educational and economical development initiatives in Imazighen communities.

The common theme for all entrepreneurs was their passion to make a difference in the world. Green Towers started because these two college grads realize there are going to be 9.5 billion people in the world in 30 years and everyone needs to eat. Where is the food going to come from? Amazig started because it’s founder had a background in fashion and when she saw a need in a local Moroccan community for artisans to have financial opportunities, she realized that creating a collaborative business could be beneficial for everyone.

The weekend also focused on how college students can be entrepreneurs?

The Sullivan Foundation offered three different tracks in which we could participate: Personal Development, Skills Training or Venture Track. Personal Development allowed self-reflection and lessons in how to deal with failures, how to match up skills with passions to make a difference and how to network within our communities. Skills Training tested the tendency to make assumptions, taught how to assess the needs of the community and practice effective design thinking to approach these needs, and then how to take the next steps in addressing an issue. The Venture Track was for those who already had an idea for a project or solution that they wanted to delve into and focus on for the weekend.

The four of us each participated in different tracks and each walked away with different applications for our lives. Cole is involved in the Space and is starting a new organization on campus, University Innovation Fellows that encourages leaders, followers, thinkers and creators to discover new approaches to reach and engage Wofford students and to enhance their entrepreneurial mindset. Chie is a first-year Bonner Scholar who has worked with United Way and is interested in the work going on in the Northside of Spartanburg. Katie is a senior involved in the James Fund, a student managed investment fund on campus that invests its proceeds in micro lending in Haiti.

What did I take away from the weekend?

We were instructed on the last night to close our eyes and picture ourselves in 10 years. What would we be eating for breakfast? Where would we be living? What would we be doing professionally? As I opened my eyes, I felt overwhelmed. For someone who is a self-proclaimed planner and plans every minute of her day, it was unsettling to think about how uncertain my future could be. However, I took a deep breath and looked around the room, for it was in that room that I found certainty for not only my own future but for the future of our local and global communities: the people surrounding me were all change-makers motivated to positively influence the world. These students had given up their weekend to learn about how they could grow in order to make positive change in the world, and they were walking away with strategies on how to offer new ideas on social issues and ways to engage others in widespread support and raise awareness for a positive human well being.

What I learned over the weekend was that I might not be a social entrepreneur, but that I am a change maker. We are not all meant to be designers or idea-generators, but we can all make a difference by being aware and accepting of innovative ideas for growth and evolvement in our societies.

by Dana Nobles ’15