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A Day to Innovate

BCSSW's annual Social Innovation Day inspires students to combine social change and entrepreneurship

04/10/15
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(L-R) BC School of Social Work students Vivian Pham, Matthew Pecoraro, Megan Toohey, Prakrity Silwal and Jeremy Vargas discuss their project at the BCSSW Social Innovation Day, held April 7 at Barat House. (Photo by Tiziana Dearing)

By Albert McKeon | Special to the Chronicle

Published: Apr. 10, 2015

It’s one thing to have a can’t-miss idea that could bring about social change. It’s a whole other thing to win the funding and support that will make the idea work.

Connecting a social spark with the engine that will drive it requires ingenuity, attention to detail and strong presentation skills, as 45 students from the Boston College School of Social Work discovered.

On April 7, at the fourth BCSSW Social Innovation Day, the students put on their best business attire, scribbled notes on reams of paper, tweaked computer slideshows and – with the aid of some professional guidance – set out to not only win a competition but also acquire some experience needed to solve pressing problems once they leave Boston College.

The students separated into nine teams, with each group tackling a seemingly intractable issue – but one they believe can be resolved with the proper dose of social work and entrepreneurship. After preparing their presentations with some tips from proven business and non-profit leaders, the teams delivered their pitches to four judges.

BCSSW faculty members have an obligation to provide students with a “tool kit” that gives them the skills and confidence to articulate and sell their ideas, according to BCSSW Associate Professor Tiziana Dearing, co-director of the Center for Social Innovation [www.bc.edu/socialinnovation], which hosted the event at Barat House. And if a presentation doesn’t work, she added, the presenter might still make an impression that will open doors later.

“One of the great lessons for the students is that, in the real world, even if you fail, you’re still a representative of your organization,” she said.

The center promotes the combination of social work and entrepreneurship as a means to overcome government funding cuts that have lessened social service resources just as more clients need help. And it’s no coincidence that the presenters at Social Innovation Day carried that mindset as they tried to create solutions for human trafficking, LGBTQ injustices, incarceration issues and other social problems.

Separating the tools of social work and business doesn’t make sense nowadays, said Stephanie Brueck, a BCSSW student in her final year. Social workers are making a difference “on the ground” but still can learn from business people who have technology, entrepreneurial ideas and funding, she said.

Brueck teamed up with fellow students Aislinn Betancourt, Julia MacMahon, Lauryn McNair and Ruth Nkemontoh — who are all slated to graduate in 2016 — to tackle an urban issue that just about every Boston area commuter thinks is in need of fixing, especially after this winter: public transportation.

Their team, “ConnectivT,” surveyed 87 people about areas of urban life that need improvement and a vast majority cited the MBTA. Survey respondents found the T unreliable, inaccessible and unsafe. With miniature case studies pinned to areas of an MBTA service map, ConnectivT highlighted T riders’ frustrations: slow Green Line trains make workers consistently late; large parts of Dorchester and Mattapan have no access to the subway and instead rely on buses that are also out of reach to many residents; and some train station areas lack sufficient security.

These shortcomings, the team contended, prevent residents from engaging with the city, a situation with significant social and economic consequences.

ConnectivT’s goal was to develop a system to help commuters overcome T deficiencies. They proposed creating touchscreen information monitors that would be placed in five prominent T stations and provide real-time updates on arrival times, alternate routes to consider in lieu of delays and shutdowns, and incident reports. The team also recommended a mobile app that provides the same information – and even allows commuters to share details with family and friends and indicate whether they’re running late and need to change plans.

Their presentation went as smoothly as a speedy, punctual commuter train: ConnectivT won the competition.

The ideas conceived by the nine student teams were meant solely for the event and — after considering the judges’ assessments — will be revised one last time for assignments to be handed in by semester’s end. But organizers hope the lessons learned from the work will carry forward for years.

“It was impressive to watch our students perform outside of the classroom setting and have a chance to see the power and potential of their professional skills in action,” said Lisa B. Eisenbud, a BCSSW adjunct professor and CEO of Go Girl Global, an online news source for teenage girls.

“For many of the students, this was the first time practicing presentation skills for the boardroom of a non-profit, corporate partner or venture capital firm. At the end of the day and a job well done, one team took the prize but every student was actually a winner.”