optiMize workshop gives training for business innovators

By Adam DePollo, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 26, 2014

More than 120 students participated in a workshop offered by optiMize and ZingTrain, the training and business development wing of the Zingerman's family of businesses, Sunday at Palmer Commons.

Since its foundation in January of 2013, optiMize — a student organization which provides guidance and funding for social innovation initiatives — has helped to launch a number of successful student-run startups at the University, including the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative and the ReSource Fund. In the past year, the organization grew in membership and established itself as part of the LSA course guide, offering a mini course that helps students to engage with pressing issues and work towards designing practical solutions to those problems.

“The goal of those classes is to get students to that spot where you’re more aware of more issues and you’ve had a chance to really start to engage with them,” said Jeff Sorenson, one of the optiMize co-founders. “Then you get the idea in your head that ‘Hey, maybe I can start doing something about this.’ ”

But while optiMize is working to raise awareness of important issues through its mini course, the organization’s focus has always been moving those discussions out of the classroom and into the real world — a process achieved largely through their annual Social Innovation Challenge, held throughout the winter term.

The workshop on Sunday intended to kick off optiMize’s build-up to the 2015 Social Innovation Challenge.

In the workshop, ZingTrain Trainer Timo Anderson and retired Managing Partner Stas’ Kazmierski asked students to write down, using the present or past tense, their vision for the completed form of their social innovation projects. In Anderson’s view, having a well-articulated vision before developing a course of action is essential for the success of any project.

“A lot of us spend so much time thinking about the ideal,” Anderson said. “But unless we know where it is and have defined and documented it and made it inspiring and available, you can’t get there. If you don’t put directions in the GPS, the GPS doesn’t work.”

The workshop also had a “Visioning” process. Kazmierski said this was essential for fostering collaboration amongst team members on a project.

Many of the students at the event — like LSA sophomore Mary Kruk, who hopes to disseminate knowledge of safe sexual practices to children who receive only abstinence-based sex education — were looking to find ways to put their ideas into practice.

“I have an idea, but I don’t necessarily know how to start it or how to plan it,” Kruk said.

OptiMize co-Founder Tim Pituch, a Rackham student, hoped that the ZingTrain workshop would help students begin that planning process.

“Essentially, what (Zingerman’s is) encouraging you to do is to imagine a better alternative to the problem, but not necessarily thinking about the how, not thinking about what it takes to get there at this point,” Pituch said.

In terms of their own vision for the future of optiMize, Sorenson and Pituch plan on building the organization’s disparate programs — the “Critical Social Issues” course, the Social Innovation Challenge and their Summer Fellowship Program — into a smooth process aimed at helping its members find success in their own initiatives.

“The classes feed into that, and then the students that really do well (in the challenge) feed into the Summer Fellowship Program that we launched this past summer where we provide students with $3000 fellowships to pay for their living expenses while they’re still working on their project in the summer,” Sorenson said.

But more generally, Sorenson and Pituch hope to continue developing optiMize into an integral and influential part of the University community.

“Both of our visions include actually having a center on campus — a physical place where social innovation at the University of Michigan convenes,” Sorenson said. “Mine had a coffee shop in it, I don’t know if Tim’s had a coffee shop in it.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Pituch added. “But essentially to have more students involved, having a bigger mentor community, alumni around the world know about us and want to help.”

“I think our vision, in many ways, is this model of learning and creating impact while you’re learning as something that’s just done around the world,” Sorenson said. “And we hope to be thought leaders in that space.”

optiMize will be accepting applications to its Social Innovation challenge until Nov. 5.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date of optiMize's founding. Tim Pituch was incorrectly identified as a Rackham student. He is a masters student in the School of Public Health and School of Information.