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Program helps students turn altruistic ideas into social enterprises

Courtesy of optiMize

The Next Idea

In his essay for The Next Idea, contributor Jamie Shea, who helps finance social enterprises, argues that Michigan has an opportunity to become a global leader in new ideas to solve age-old social problems. One reason Michigan has this potential, he says, is because “new social enterprises are often led by Millennials who want to align their work with their values.  

With our state’s abundance of colleges and universities, many of these people are already here and looking for a place to land, having been priced out of places like Brooklyn and San Francisco.”

It turns out that two former University of Michigan students have developed a program that could help push the state closer toward becoming the nation’s leader in social entrepreneurship.

In 2012, Jeff Sorensen and Tim Pituch, then seniors at U of M, founded optiMize as a way for students with new ideas and a passion for working on social issues to try their hand at turning their ideas into action. With support from university administrators, the program has grown to include more than 400 students, and is highlighted by a competition with real seed money for the best ideas, mini-courses on key social issues in Michigan, and a growing network of mentors to help the young entrepreneurs.

The Next Idea talked with Sorensen and Pituch about starting optiMize, some of the cool ideas that have emerged and where it’s going.

What was the motivation behind starting optiMize?

We were about to graduate and we were frustrated. During our four years at the University of Michigan, we saw so many students come up with incredibly creative responses to problems in the world around us. But then the class would end and no one would go out and try to bring those ideas to life!

That sort of idealistic creativity in the absence of the pragmatic, "how do we actually do this" mindset that comes from real world experience just gets old. 

If you don't have ways for students to take action on their ideas, you miss the opportunity to leverage this amazing energy that students have to take on the massive social and environmental challenges facing our world.

We thought if we could get students to spend five months trying to bring their ideas to life in the real world with help from experienced mentors, that process would give them the confidence and competence to drive change for the rest of their lives. That's the beautiful thing about social innovation -- it combines idealistic motives with pragmatic principles, and it requires action.

At some point in this ideation process, we thought, "Okay, someone needs to do this!"  And then the irony of that set in, and we each kind of looked at ourselves and asked, "Why not us?"

What is the most innovative idea that has emerged since you started optiMize in 2013?

The most innovative idea is that students can actually make a positive impact in the world as an integral component of their undergraduate learning experience. Experiential learning will actually better prepare students for life after college and create an impact in surrounding communities along the way.

Social innovation is a powerful platform for such experiential learning. Over the past two years, some pretty incredible ideas have come from optiMize students. Teams that have participated in our Social Innovation Challenge are operating an urban farm in Detroit (Michigan Urban Farming Initiative), providing financial coaching to low-income Washtenaw County residents (ReSourceFund), and collecting wasted medical supplies from local hospitals and shipping them to countries that desperately need them (Blueprints forPangaea).

It might seem hard to believe that students are doing this all while maintaining a full college course load, but this is an example of what students can do if they’re really challenged and supported. And this isn’t a small number. In just two years, we’ve had more than 400 students participate in our programs.

Finish this sentence: In order to reach their full potential, Michigan’s young innovators really need …

First off, we need to ask ourselves, “Why not me?”  When we identify problems in the world around us, we need to stop waiting for someone else to solve them.  Michigan’s young innovators need to realize that our ideas can drive the future if we take action.

Second, for our generation of innovators to thrive, we need mentorship from the generations ahead of us. For meaningful impact to be possible, our idealism must be paired with an equal, if not greater, level of pragmatism. This is where we are at a distinct disadvantage. Having spent the vast majority of our lives in school, we don’t always know the hard realities of how things work in the real world.

But we can learn. We’ve seen extraordinary results when mentors help students navigate the pragmatics of implementation. In fact, the best mentorship relationships quickly become a two-way street. Mentors keep coming back because they get energy and new insight from the students they work with. By helping our generation reach our full potential, they discover new potential in themselves.

What is one problem you currently cannot solve and what has to happen for you to be able to solve it?

There’s real potential for this to become the norm for undergraduate education not only in Michigan, but around the country. Imagine the innovation and social impact we would see if hundreds of thousands of students around the country were actively working to turn their ideas into impact every year. Imagine how much more prepared and engaged our future workforce would be after having that kind of experience.

But there are major challenges to integrating this into a university’s framework. We have credit hours and concentration requirements to meet. These serve great purposes, but they also make it difficult to find a five-month period where students can really go all-in to try to start something new. For all the positive outcomes we see from optiMize, we also see some students struggling to balance their academic responsibilities with their social innovation endeavors. This ends up closing off this learning experience for students who can’t afford to take time away from their credit-bearing work. We need to find ways to make it possible for more students to take on ambitious projects as a part of their college experience, not as an add-on.

One way forward would be to get more university administrators to put their weight behind innovative, student-driven efforts. We couldn’t have done this without the support of administrators here and this needs to happen at more schools.

What’s next? In five years, what is your ideal vision of optiMize, if all goes as planned?

In Ann Arbor, optiMize will be run by students for students, with support from mentors, alumni and administrators. The community we’ve started will be stronger and more supportive than we can even imagine today, and our optiMize alums will stay involved to guide the organization.

More broadly, what we call “social innovation” will just be called “college.” Programs like optiMize will exist on campuses around the country, and we’ll have figured out models to integrate them into the undergraduate experience so that all students have the opportunity to engage.

Every student will, at some point in their college experience, be prompted to ask: “How might I be able to apply what I’m learning to drive the change I want to see?” And if all goes as planned, hundreds of thousands of students around the country will take action to start answering that question for themselves. They won’t stand by and wait for someone else to step up to the challenges facing our generation.

Joe Linstroth is the executive producer of Stateside, Michigan Radio's daily news magazine. Before joining the station, he was the founding senior producer of Current State, WKAR's daily show. Joe began his public radio career working on WBEZ's global affairs show, Worldview, and got his start in journalism writing film reviews and reporting for the Evanston RoundTable.
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