New business incubator offers mentorship opportunities

By Amrutha Sivakumar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 1, 2013

optiMize, a new program that links entrepreneurial social service and innovation, aims to bring entrepreneurship to social initiatives. With help from mentors, students will compete to have their social innovation ideas funded.

To bring new social entrepreneurship opportunities to LSA students, University alum Jeff Sorensen co-founded the initiative last semester to provide healthy competition for students interested in fostering social change.

While he said he believed that programs hosted by Center for Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Commission of the CSG provided an outlet for students who wanted to be entrepreneurs “for entrepreneurship's sake,” he said optiMize was a platform through which students could “take action on problems that matter.”

With around 90 applicants and members ranging from freshman to doctoral candidates, optiMize kick-started its preparations for the competition aspect in January.

“We’re really happy about the demographics because, unfortunately, a lot of the entrepreneurship initiatives here are like men’s clubs,” Sorensen said. “The proportions are not where they should be; we are really happy that about 40 percent (of optiMize participants) are women.”

optiMize aims to “connect students who want to do things with people who know how,” Sorensen explained.

Business sophomore Sripriya Navalpakam, who founded a micro-financing start-up, turned to optiMize with a business pitch and an aspiration to expand it into the greater community.

“One thing that they’ve created right now is a community of excited students who are really passionate about creating change,” Navalpakam said. “We weren’t really a part of this before we joined optiMize.”

Navalpakam explained that working with low-income community members on her venture has led to a number of typical challenges. While accepting that social entrepreneurship entailed a fair degree of stress, she said optiMize has connected her with lasting mentors.

“Moving forward it’s going to give us a really strong ecosystem,” Navalpakam said. “Being entrepreneurs, it gets really stressful and I just find myself reaching out to everyone for advice.”

Grace Hsia, co-founder and CEO of Warmilu — a social startup created to help infants who are at a high risk of death from hypothermia — worked with the optiMize teams and members and provided “realistic, grounded critiques.”

“For social ventures, the people who (need the help) may not be able to afford the product or the service,” Hsia said.

On April 4, the 19 teams of students who have been working with the optiMize team will gather to present their business pitches. Four to five teams will then take their developed businesses to compete for a stipend and showcase their products on April 18 at 7 p.m. at the University of Michigan Museum of Modern Art.

While Sorensen hoped the start-ups developed through optiMize would be able to continue to grow after the challenge, education is the real goal.

“Most first start-ups aren’t going to be the ones to change the world,” Sorensen said. “But at the same time, in order to get to that point you need to try and fail.”

He said optiMize’s next step would be to develop an educational curriculum that could integrate with course plans of LSA students. Currently in talks with administrators, Sorensen said he hoped optiMize would be able to provide to students several one-credit courses on social problems and solutions to inspire pitches among students.

“I think something that’s not as obvious is that people who want to do this, want it to be rigorous,” he said “It needs to be an experience where by the time you go through it you are actually prepared to start doing something.”

Through potential collaboration with the Flipped Semester, Sorensen said the program would be able to attract a larger membership.

“In terms of the future of education at U-M, I think this kind of action-based, immersive learning experiences are what’s going to keep Michigan a Leader and Best.”

Correction Appended:A previous version of this article misspelt Grace Hsia's last name.