New Cal Students Tackle Social Entrepreneurship in Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

The Big Ideas Contest and Haas School of Business’ Center for Social Sector Leadership team up for new hands-on course

A group of students pitches their social venture on the final day of the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class.

Anvitha Tummala sees many unhoused people on her walks to class, and it raises an uncomfortable thought for her: She and her peers are earning a world-class education at UC Berkeley with access to all sorts of amenities, while those living on the streets in her neighborhood constantly live without stable sources of food or shelter.

“Seeing that every day opened my eyes, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

Tummala found an outlet in UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas. The class, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

In the Big Ideas course, teams of students identify a social or environmental problem, develop an impactful solution that can be implemented through a business model, and ultimately pitch their startup concept to a panel of expert judges. Teams also draft applications to the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems. The course runs the first eight weeks of the fall semester.

“Berkeley students care deeply about addressing intractable social issues, and developing viable solutions that will make tangible impacts is no easy task,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny. “This class really creates the foundations for these students to enter programs like Big Ideas and turn their social missions into reality.”

“This partnership between Big Ideas, the Center for Social Sector Leadership, and the campus-wide Berkeley Changemaker™ Initiative is such a lovely example of synergy,” said Rich Lyons, Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer and a key figure behind the creation of Berkeley Changemaker™. “The gateway Berkeley Changemaker™ course touches roughly 1,000 undergraduates each year, and typically in the summer prior to the first year, so the ramp from that to this new joint programming is rapidly advancing our impact.”

Early in the class, Tummala and her classmates pitched problems they wanted to solve. Tummala’s made it to the final round of ideas, where classmates who shared her deep concerns joined her to tackle it with a social startup.

Professor Jorge Calderon (front) with students in the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas Class

Thirty percent of those who become homeless fall down that path after losing a job, explained her teammate, Fernando Campos. The stresses, difficulties, and failures to find a job can lead to substance abuse and other problems that exacerbate homelessness.

Their solution starts with a form unhoused people can fill out that will connect them with job-seeking and healthcare resources. It would be available in shelters for those who end up there, as well as on their startup’s website, which would be aimed at individuals and families who still have internet access but who recently lost a job are thus facing potential homelessness. In addition to connecting folks to vital services to get them back on their feet, Tummala, Campos, and their team would create a curriculum to assist users with the difficult job hunt.

For at least a year, Big Ideas and the Center for Social Sector Leadership had been batting around ideas for experiential social entrepreneurship classes when they learned about the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative. “I was concerned that we inspire and motivate students for social change, and then what?” said Nora Silver, a Haas professor and the founder and faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership. A Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas course would put that inspiration and motivation to work while giving Big Ideas a better on-ramp to its challenging annual competition.

Silver said a gap exists throughout the whole field of social entrepreneurship between people with great ideas and creating institutions that can carry out those ideas. “We didn’t want to set up our students for that kind of hitting-the-wall full-force — running ahead excited and then, boom, ‘What do we do?’”

Silver had a professor at her center who taught a variety of launch classes, Jorge Calderon, who agreed to teach a Big Ideas class. Adapting from his slate of courses and the “purpose-driven design” frameworks he had developed over years, Calderon set up a step-by-step process for his new students to follow: ideation, working through problem discovery, developing and validating a solution and business model, communicating and pitching the concept.

“That sequencing is really important because it starts with really diving deep into what they’re trying to solve for, rather than going the other way around, where they generally come with a solution and then try to figure out where the need is,” he said.

Lessons from lectures, readings, media content, class dialogues, and industry guest speakers are put to work during lab sessions, where students do the hands-on work of developing their social startup concept. Though most of the students are first and second years, much of the curriculum comes from graduate courses.

“We don’t hold back our pedagogy because of their level — because they can keep up,” Calderon said. “I’ve always been impressed with students’ ability to engage and be able to follow through with the process, especially that early in their academic journey.”

As with Tummala, the genesis for many of the topics students tackle are personal, which makes for compelling team-building. “That’s a very powerful opportunity for folks to address things that are meaningful to them and then rally and engage others around that cause,” Calderon said. Communicating and selling complex ideas as simple narratives is paramount in this business. “By the end of the course they do a very good job of that process,” he added.

The Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class is held in a spacious, modern classroom on the fifth floor of Haas’ Chou Hall. On Wednesday, Calderon was prepping the 10 teams for their final pitches in a week’s time: advice for pacing their presentation perfectly, understanding the emotional arc they would take their audience on, nailing down their “Wow!” fact.

“You want this to be well choreographed,” Calderon said, “like a ballet.”

When lab time rolled around, Nitya Sri Adapala and her teammates began discussing the aesthetic of their presentation’s splash page, where they’d kick off their pitch for addressing food waste.

“One-third of the world’s food is being wasted,” she said. All while homeless and low-income folks struggle to afford food.

Sri Adapala and her team’s startup would transport excess food from the source — say, a family that knew they couldn’t finish their groceries or a restaurant that had whole foods they didn’t get to — to pantries where those most in need can access it. To increase the sustainability of their venture, the food would be transported by bicycle in biodegradable storage containers.

Signing up for the program and scheduling pickups and deliveries would all be done through an app, which would also highlight to diners restaurants that donate their excess food. The service would also alleviate restaurants’ costs, too, explained Riya Patel. She said the team found that dumpsters can start at $500 or $600 a month, and restaurants often fill them with excess food. Diverting that to pantries would reduce the size and cost of the dumpsters restaurants need.

The startup’s revenue would come from a $450 base fee — cheaper than the cheapest dumpster — that establishments would pay for all their pickups.

Though taking their venture to the next level would require more business acumen, not to mention a software engineer to make the app, the team expressed an interest in returning to their social startup a few years down the line, after acquiring more expertise in business and food waste.

“The past eight weeks, though, have been invaluable in starting the process,” Sri Adapala said.

The class is not a one-off incursion of Big Ideas into the classroom. Coming to Berkeley Changemaker™ this spring is a Big Ideas “Special Topic” Innovations OnRamp class about financial inclusion and “the challenge of ensuring that all people have access to affordable, helpful financial services such as savings, payments, insurance and credit in both the developing world and in more developed markets like the U.S.”

For a while, Silver had been wanting to offer a class wherein topics change term-to-term based on what issues students are concerned about. (Without a previous cohort to inform Silver and her teaching team, they decided on financial inclusion for the inaugural “Special Topic” class.) While Silver envisions two instructors — one with extensive topic knowledge and one with deep social-entrepreneurial experience — she discovered that Haas colleague Joe Dougherty had both, and will be teaching the class in the spring 2022 semester. Dougherty, a partner at Dalberg Advisors, has worked at a variety of consulting and professional services firms, including Kearney and Cardno, and has taught at UNC Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies before coming to Haas. Building on his spring class content will be team-based projects that utilize entrepreneurial skills.

Given how fall’s class has gone, Dougherty has much to be excited about.

“One of the great things about this class is seeing the ingenuity from the next generation,” Calderon said. “I think that is something that you can’t necessarily see from the outside of school. But once you’re in these classes, you get to see how creative they are and how passionate they are.”