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Williams School Hosts First Social Entrepreneurship Summit

The Williams School’s J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship hosted its first Social Entrepreneurship Summit on May 2.

When business administration professor Drew Hess taught a winter term course on social entrepreneurship, he was overwhelmed by all the ways his students wanted to change the world.

“Across campus, there were these great student-led causes trying to initiate big, bold change, and we thought it made a lot of sense to give them some of the same tools and support we’d give to any student startups,” said Hess.

Hess and his wife, Megan Hess—also a business professor at the Williams School—decided to invite a dozen student leaders to dinner one night. They wanted to discuss ways the campus and the Williams School could support social entrepreneurship.

“We gave them dinner and got the conversation started, and then we just left the room and let them talk through all the possibilities,” said Drew Hess.

The students decided to host a summit where they could share ideas and gain support. They envisioned a keynote address and a series of pitches, with students competing for funding that would help get their socially motivated startups off the ground.

Nicholas Luther ’14, a business administration and accounting double major, led the charge, organizing the summit and serving as the event’s emcee. Generals Development, Community Financial Freedom, Nabors Service League, Engineers without Borders and Venture Club all signed on as sponsors.

Washington and Lee School of Law alumnus Douglas B. Ammar ’89L gave a speech to the attendees. He runs the Georgia Justice Project, which strives to improve racial disparities in the American prison system. He has worked there in some capacity—first as a volunteer, then a staff lawyer, and finally as the non-profit’s executive director—since its inception in 1986.

Ammar addressed what it takes to launch a successful social enterprise. He discussed challenges all social ventures face, including finding financing, defining the organization’s scope and managing day-to-day operations.

“It’s great when you can find tough issues to take on that no one can disagree with,” he said.

Following the keynote, five student teams pitched their ideas to four judges, who weighed the style and content and awarded prizes to the top three finishers:

Azmain Amin ’17: PolyGreen Bags, an eco-friendly shopping bag produced from recycled paper and jute fiber. First prize, $500.

Matt Kordonowy ’16: Vern Clothing, a company that sources sustainable and socially responsible apparel by working with women’s cooperatives in Guatemala. Second prize, $200.

Juan Mayol ’16 and Nina Preston ’16: Manual, filtered washing machines that can save women in developing countries hours of work each day and reduce health risks associated with washing clothing in contaminated water sources.

Marino Orlandi ’16: A microfinance program to help remote Kenyan villages secure funding for needed water infrastructure.

Darby Shuler ’14: 3-D printers for medical facilities in El Salvador, providing technicians with the tools and training to build prosthetic hands for amputees. Third prize, $50.

“These types of events don’t happen overnight, and Nicholas and the other student leaders deserve all the credit for making this event a success,” said Drew Hess. “Megan and I were thrilled with the turnout and support and hope that this is just the first step in developing a culture of socially motivated entrepreneurship at W&L.”

—by Rachel Beanland