Erin Johnson had just moved into her dorm room at Bursley and found her way around campus when she saw a poster: “ ‘Why not me?’ Stop waiting for someone else to change the world.” The poster for the student organization optiMize would ultimately chart the course for her time at the University.
A year later Johnson, a sophomore studying business and international studies, is president of the organization. She said prior to joining optiMize she had minimal experience in entrepreneurship, but the passion and support from members of the organization inspired her.
“ ‘Stop waiting for someone else to change the world’ — seeing that phrase come to life, that’s probably why I got so involved,” she said.
Since 2012, optiMize has helped students with social innovation ideas make them a reality. The programs pairs student-entrepreneurs with experienced mentors, and offers $100,000 in prize money to the student groups that advocate for their ideas most successfully. The top five teams each win $5,000 in funding to create their design. The projects are funded primarily through donor money, but the group also receives funding from LSA.
Mentors can come from all backgrounds: “near peer” mentors are students who have previously participated in the program, while older mentors from LSA, alumni, and entrepreneurs in the Ann Arbor community.
“Maybe someone has an idea but they have no idea how to get started, or no idea how to put it into action,” Johnson said. “Everyone has the soft skills; the mentors come in and really help them with the hard skills: how exactly are you going to implement this, how exactly are you going to take this idea and like what channel are you going to go through, who are you really going to market to?”
The team met at an optiMize “speed dating” event, which pairs students interested in participating but do not have a partner or a clear idea yet with others in the same boat. One of members came up with their idea when she visited the Ann Arbor Veteran’s Association hospital and asked what the patients needed. It’s this kind of problem solving Erin loves.
“That’s the coolest thing I think about optiMize is that when people notice a problem, they can follow through, and we provide them with the resources to actually take that idea or the problem that they saw and help them along the solution,” she said. “Seeing people go and take real world experience and being like ‘I’m going to change that, that’s not that hard to change’ like making an accessory for a wheelchair — that improves so many people’s lives, that makes so much of a positive impact, but all you had to do was figure out how you’re going to attach an umbrella to a wheelchair.”
Since last year, ADAPT has used its winnings to expand and become a real company working on several other attachments for wheelchairs, and to improve disabled people’s lives.
For people like Johnson, it’s these success stories and the reach optiMize has that keeps her passionate about the organization.
“As soon as I got there I knew this was (a good fit for me), because I have a lot of experience with community service, and stuff like that, but it was always like a one on one basis — I tutored this person after school, I do this, I do this — but like I never felt like the work I was doing was making an impact on the community as a whole,” she said. “Being able to even help someone take their idea and even play the smallest part in helping them make that dream, that passion, into something real. That was the most rewarding thing for me.”
As president, Johnson hopes to share her positive experience with as many people as possible and spread optiMize’s message that there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between work and life. She believes in this message so much that after graduation, Erin would like to work somewhere with the same principles as optiMize.
“People talk about concepts of work-life balance a lot, and what we want to show people is that just because you’re doing something to make a living doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about it,” Johnson said. “Doing what you love and going to work everyday — they don’t have to be these two mutually exclusive things. The more overlap your life passions have with what you do on a daily basis — that’s what it should be.”