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Graduate Students Get a Crash Course in Social Entrepreneurship

(L-R) Dana Loatman, Raya Al Ageel, Francesca Longo, Stephanie Brueck and Greg Cassoli took part in the Hult Prize Foundation Social Enterprise Competition.

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Mar. 26, 2015

A cross-collaborative team of graduate students from the Carroll School of Management, the Lynch School of Education, and the School of Social Work recently took part in a unique competition where contestants proposed innovative solutions to pervasive social problems.

The five-person Boston College team joined other budding young entrepreneurs in the annual Hult Prize Foundation $1 Million Social Enterprise Competition, which is sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative. The competition aims to identify and launch the most compelling social business ideas to tackle serious issues affecting millions of people. Student teams compete in five cities around the world for a chance to secure $1 million in start-up funding to launch a sustainable social venture.

The Hult Prize regional finals were held earlier this month for 300 teams pitching their ideas in Boston and four other cities around the world. While the BC team – Dana Loatman, Greg Cassoli and Stephanie Brueck (Social Work), Raya Al Ageel (Carroll School) and Francesca Longo (Lynch School) – did not advance from the regional rounds to the final six, they came away sounding upbeat, and determined to put to use what they learned.

“It was an awesome, awesome experience,” says Loatman, the team leader.  “No one on our team had ever done anything like that. It was very rewarding for us to go through the process together and address the challenge with a grassroots approach, instead of a top-down policy approach.”

Faced with the competition’s challenge of addressing the needs of young children in global urban slums, the Boston College entry came up with a low-cost, scalable solution to distribute cloth tote bags, which they branded as the DialogBag, combined with community-based training sessions. Because poor children often miss out on social, emotional, and executive functioning development, the BC students explain, the DialogBag would double as a play mat to be used for educational games that promote the necessary and essential adult-child interactions.

Corporate sponsorship from firms looking to reach low-income families, including mobile phone companies, helped to make the venture financially sustainable.

“I was very impressed with the commitment and creativity of the students on the BC team,” says Carroll School of Management part-time faculty member Laura Foote, the team adviser. “They got invaluable experience from taking on the challenge, brainstorming ideas, and developing a sustainable high-impact idea to pitch to the judges.”

Team members said the combination of different minds from the different schools yielded the greatest educational dividend.
“At the beginning, it felt like my vocabulary as an international MBA student was completely different from that of a social work student,” says Al Ageel, “but as the project built momentum we collaborated well.  We were all excited to participate.”

“During our initial meetings, it seemed impossible to design and scale up a venture to reach 10 million children in five years,” says Loatman. “Also, we all weren’t sure what the others were saying.  Maybe we didn’t get the business frameworks or maybe we didn’t understand the educational psychological language.

“But at the end of the day, during every meeting we got closer to a solution because we saw the need for the other person’s input and what that brought to the table. So the interconnectedness of our different backgrounds was essentially how we got to a solution.”

Foote and the five students see BC as a fount for social entrepreneurship.

“The University is well-positioned to form cross-disciplinary teams like this one to tackle important community and global challenges,” says Foote, “and I hope to see this happening more at BC.”