Budding entrepreneurs help nonprofits plan for growth
The students on the winning team joined a representative from their charity. Left to right: Gordon Xu, Lillian Lee Man Tsang, executive director Johnny Duda, Yamato Kaneko and Bill Greig.
Four UCLA students used their smarts to develop a business-expansion plan that won $10,000 this week for an L.A. nonprofit that puts high-quality journalism programs in inner-city high schools.
The prize money, provided by a donor, will help fund the business plan the students created for the local nonprofit, the Student Voice Project, which teaches underprivileged students better critical thinking and writing skills. The students developed the plan as part of a new class in the Department of Economics called the Social Enterprise Academy.
The UCLA students worked with Student Voice Project staff to develop an expansion plan to get private schools to pay for their own journalism program. The money would then largely cover the cost for the program at a struggling school.
The Social Enterprise Academy offers hands-on experience to students in becoming entrepreneurs for a good cause. With help from in-class workshops, real entrepreneurs and MBA students from the Anderson School of Management, teams of students work with different nonprofits to develop realistic business plans for growth.
“Our students learn a lot of theory, but they need practice implementing an idea,” said Economics Professor Andrew Atkeson, who brought the course to UCLA. “This way, the students get actual experience working with nonprofit staff on something new.”
The judges calculate teams' scores. From left to right, the judges are Fathia Macauley, Nick Davis, Claudia Sangster, Mitch Berman, Charlie Steinmetz and Stanley Zimmerman.
In the end, the students offer the nonprofits an outline for expansion, a financial projection, a marketing plan and other features. During the first quarter of the two-quarter class, students presented these materials before a panel of judges who chose three winning entries to compete in this week’s final match for the $10,000 prize.
“This is months of hard work coming together,” said junior Gordon Xu, a business economics major on the winning team. “It was a great chance to apply the concepts we’ve been learning in class.”
Xu and his teammates, Yamato Kaneko, Bill Greig and Lillian Lee Man Tsang, admired the prize check, but Tsang said it wasn’t the most important thing they’d gotten out of the experience.
“The most valuable thing about this class was the hands-on experience,” said Tsang, a senior business economics major. “It’s especially good that it has a mission built into the project. Our work will promote literacy.”
For example, at one low-performing school with an 8 percent graduation rate, all 60 students involved in the Student Voice Project journalism program graduated, said the project’s executive director, Johnny Duda.
Another nonprofit, Upward Bound House, which helps shelter homeless families with children, didn’t win the big prize, but its student-created business plan snagged the audience’s vote, winning $500 for the organization. The charity’s thrift shop, which caters to their homeless families, often receives inappropriate donations, such as skis, and the business plan calls for asking for more high-end donations for the charity to auction off on eBay to raise money for shelter. The students weren’t the only ones happy with the experience, said David Snow, the charity’s executive director.
“We’re really excited to have the resources of smart UCLA students to help us analyze our business and put together a business plan,” Snow said. “It’s been fantastic, and to have the students thinking about getting involved in civic work is so important.”
Professor Atkeson worked with Betsy Densmore, the president of Academies for Social Entrepreneurship, to develop the class. Densmore’s organization trains social-justice nonprofits, such as those addressing homelessness, to develop their own business-expansion plans and pitch their ideas to potential funders. Together, Atkeson and Densmore added UCLA students to the process with the two-quarter class.
Professor Atkeson noted the program could not have come together without UCLA Vice Provost of New Collaborative Initiatives Kathryn Atchison, who encouraged his idea to develop the class and helped secure funding for it.
“It was a great idea and a good learning experience for the students,” Atchison said. “It really capitalizes on UCLA’s role in the community.”
Atchison also praised the mentors who participated in class workshops, ranging from local business leaders and venture capitalists to marketing gurus and nonprofit leaders, as well as the volunteers who judged Tuesday’s competition. Among the judges was Charlie Steinmetz, an active member of several boards at UCLA who also provided the $10,000 prize.
“I’ve enjoyed the competition,” said senior economics major Arianna Calderon, who worked with OPICA, a nonprofit providing early-intervention memory training for Alzheimer’s patients. “There’s actual funding at stake, and it’s an extra incentive. We’re working not just for ourselves, but also for these nonprofits.”
Even though finding funding is a vital part of any nonprofit’s work, the students said, they loved working with organizations that weren’t just about money.
“I liked the idea of a double bottom-line: having the social benefit instead of just the financial benefit,” said sophomore Eddie McLaughlin, a business economics major. “I also liked how we worked with a team and the nonprofit, because that’s how the real world works. It’s not just you sitting down for a test. You have to work together.”