By Karen Schlesinger, PGS Alumna
Helping Alabama students create sustainable businesses that help the economy
During my time as a Presidio MBA student commuting from Alabama, one of the things that I found myself constantly repeating was how far behind the rest of the country is in terms of sustainability in comparison to San Francisco. I kept saying, “It’s great that we’re here in the Bay Area, but the rest of the country needs us too.”
While Alabama might need help becoming more sustainable, no one in the state will ever ask for it, and especially not from an outsider. Defiantly and proudly insular, folks in Alabama do not take instantly to people like me, a transplant from upstate NY who has been trying to forge a career in sustainable business in one of the most unsustainable parts of our country. The state ranks among the lowest in environmental performance, among the highest in poverty, obesity, and air pollution that leads to high level of childhood asthma. The state legislature recently passed anti-Agenda 21 legislation, banning implementation of any United Nations Sustainable Development initiatives because it was argued that they infringe on citizens rights to due process.
Creating the Antithesis
It is within this context that I began working on a unique month-long pilot program at the University of Alabama (UA). The Green Entrepreneurial Internship Program is designed to entice high school and early college students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math education by getting them excited about how they can use these skills to launch innovative sustainable businesses. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the goal of the program is to spur new business creation and economic development in the impoverished Black Belt region of rural Alabama by building the next generation of leaders through innovative science, technology and business education.
In this program, six teams of students had one month to develop a product using a sustainable material, and they had to create a marketable prototype, a business plan, and a venture pitch that they would present in a business plan competition at the end of the month. As a Co-instructor and the Lead Sustainable Business and Product Design mentor, I worked with these teams on their product development process and the creation of the their business plans. Now, for those of you who have gone through the Presidio MBA experience, you might be saying to yourselves, “A month! These kids developed a product, built a prototype, and wrote a business plan in a month? High school students??” Yes. It wasn’t a pretty process (some days felt more like bootcamp), and the plans might not be worthy of an MBA, but these kids kicked some serious sustainable business butt.
Diving Right In
We started off the first week of the program with a series of lectures on sustainable product development (built heavily from the customer discovery process from Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany book), team building, design, and presentation skills. After that, we dove right in.
Each team took on a different challenge. For example, the Bamboo Team worked to find a marketable use for locally grown bamboo. Collaborating with a local builder and an industrial designer, the interns, UA undergraduates David Alan Hawkins and Tarif Haque, developed several elegant and innovative designs for LED-powered bamboo lamps.
The 1-4-1 Team was motivated by a different problem: Hale County High School senior Jordan Banks was inspired to create a social enterprise when he recognized that underprivileged children at his school were wearing the same clothes frequently. Inspired by the Toms social enterprise model with shoes, the 1-4-1 Team developed a number of original T-shirt designs, and for each T-shirt sold, a second shirt will be provided to a child in need. Working with his fellow high school interns Timothy Holley II, Thomas Mark Johnson II, and faculty advisers Dr. Karen Boykin and Dr. Virgina Wimberly, the team as also developed a way to treat the shirts with an environmentally-friendly nanoparticle that made them moisture, odor, and dirt resistant.
A third team tackled the issue of wastewater produced from the traditional papermaking process. Led by environmental engineer Jonathan Bonner, high school interns James Banks and Jordan Pelt and UA graduate mentors Kate Kotan and Redi Sileshi developed a way to make paper from locally sourced bamboo and embed native wildflower seeds in the paper so that it can be planted after use. The wastewater from the papermaking process is then run through an ecological filter, rendering the water clean and reusable without the use of chemicals.
Team PB2 decided to take on a public health challenge of mosquito-borne diseases through a renewable energy solution. Led by Dr. Michael Baran from Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and Dr. Patrick Barber from the Center for Green Manufacturing at UA, interns Kalynn Pruitt and Austin Finnen developed a patent-pending mosquito trap powered by renewable energy sources that creates a useful garden byproduct.
Finally, two teams led by Scott McCormick, Doug Lindsay and Greg Mick from Denali Organics are finding solutions for industrial byproducts. High school intern Sela McDonald and her mentors Whitney Hough and Sloan McCrary are working to develop a brand for their Dixie Glycerin Soap, which is made from a bio-diesel byproduct. Intern William Layfield has been working with Denali and the mentors to develop a company that will sell organic fertilizer made from a byproduct from local catfish production facilities.
Learning you can make a difference
While not all the business ventures explored through this program will continue on into the future, some will. Although the impact they will have still remains to be seen, student interns, mentors, and instructors alike learned a tremendous amount through this experiment. Personally, I found it incredibly inspiring to work with such bright and motivated young people and watch their minds open to a different way of finding solutions to improve their own communities.