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And the winner is …

Behind the Scenes of the Social Venture Competition

by Sarah Harmon

April 17, 2009

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The room fell silent.

“The top three finalists are,” began Melissa Paulsen, the social/microventuring programs manager at the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

A few hands clamped shut, and one of the participant’s knees slightly wobbled. Out of 23 teams competing at the University of Notre Dame’s eighth annual Social Venture Business Plan Competition, only six finalists remained for the Thursday, Apr. 16, final presentations. The $15,000 grand prize was still on the table.

“Nervous?” one of the mentors whispered. The participant next to him nodded once.

Just three hours earlier, the mood was just as tense. Each of the six finalist teams presented their business plans, with flashy PowerPoint slides and one team, SHE: Sustainable Health Enterprises, even revealed an example of its product.  
Then, a panel of 12 judges—comprised of members of IrishAngels, other alumni groups and Notre Dame faculty—began a round of probing and intense questioning.

“So what’s the competitive advantage?” one judge asked.

“Are you planning on doing this full-time?” another added.

“Does anyone on your team have experience in developing products?”

The teams had to prove that they could successfully implement their social venturing or social entrepreneurship business plan, which according to the Gigot Center, combines entrepreneurship with a social mission or purpose. This is often referred to as serving a “double or triple bottom line” of sustainable profitability and social purpose and/or environmental awareness.

The teams varied in scope. SHE, for instance, is a venture that franchises female-run companies that manufacture and distribute low-priced, high quality and environmentally friendly sanitary pads in developing countries.

“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to put a spotlight on an urgent but typically ignored problem,” said Elizabeth Scharpf (ND ’99), president and CEO of SHE.

Just before the top-three finalist were announce she added: “The judges had a plethora of challenging questions, but we’re confident that it will help us improve upon the implementation of SHE.”

Other teams agreed when it came to the judges’ tough questioning.

“The questions were very inspiring, very helpful,” said Chana Roschyk (MBA ’03), the team leader for Sprout learn-n-grow, an enterprise that brings age-appropriate science programs to pre-school and early elementary children.

Many of the other teams centered on energy, including (1) MicroEnergy Credits, a social enterprise seeking to encourage better energy choices through a new carbon offset market for microfinance clients, (2) ECO-Zone, Inc., a venture that curbs deforestation in the Amazon through a combination of sustainable recycling technology, low-emission manufacturing of fertilizer and fair trade policies, and (3) AGRASUN, a new energy company looking to produce second-generation biofuels from non-food organic material.

The sixth finalist was HANDS – Helping Others Help, an organization that matches students in the United States with social organizations in Guatemala to address economic underdevelopment.

The members of each group sat clustered together—eyes focused ahead—as they waited for Paulsen to announce the top-three.

“Sprout learn-n-grow,” Paulsen said. “AGRASUN and…Sustainable Health Enterprises, SHE.”
Applause followed as the Giovanini Commons room broke into commotion with murmured congratulations, handshakes and pats on the back.

“It’s gone extremely well,” said Karen Slaggert, program manager for the Gigot Center. “I heard one judge say that these presentations were the best he’s seen in the past eight years.”

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