In its first year, optiMize, a student organization focused on social innovation and entrepreneurship, has had impressive results. The group raised $85,000 to fund student-run nonprofits through its Social Innovation Challenge. But all of this success comes from humble beginnings — a few beers shared between co-founders Tim Pituch and Jeff Sorensen after Festifall in 2012.
“We were trying to figure out what we were going to do with our lives at that point,” Sorenson said, “And after the first beer (Tim) was like ‘I don’t know, this sounds OK but I’ve got a lot of stuff going on.’ But after the third beer, we were like ‘We’re going to do this and this and this. We’re going to get this done.’ ”
Pituch, a first year Health Informatics graduate student, and Sorensen, who recently left the Master of Entrepreneurship to pursue optiMize full-time, didn’t have much experience with social innovation before they started optiMize.
“I actually hadn’t even heard of the phrase social entrepreneurship before we starting talking about the idea of optiMize last fall,” Pituch said.
The idea grew out of a feeling of frustration and the belief that University students had the potential to make real changes in the world.
“In a lot of classes we were talking about, you know, public health issues or education issues, environmental energy issues, systemic inequality,” Sorensen said. “Students would come up with really interesting ideas to address these issues that weren’t being done. And there’d be a lot of energy around it — you could see the potential to act on these student ideas. But then the class would end and nobody would actually get out and try them.”
Over the past year, optiMize has succeeded in moving those plans into action. The money raised for the Social Innovation Challenge went to fund more than 50 groups around campus — like the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative that harvests more than 10,000 pounds of produce from the north side of Detroit or to allow the ReSource Fund to provide financial planning assistance to low-income residents of Washtenaw County.
optiMize has even made an impact on the LSA Course Guide, working to put together several one credit courses focused on topics related to social entrepreneurship.
As Pituch and Sorensen are quick to point out, however, the success of optiMize is dependent on its ability to help students take the first step towards putting their own ideas and interests into action. For the organization’s founders, their partnership provided that initiative.
“I think the fact that we were doing it together honestly made all the difference. If either one of us had tried to go out and do something alone, we would have easily gotten discouraged,” Pituch said.
Moving forward, Pituch and Sorensen hope to continue optiMize’s mission while making sure that they continue to appreciate their success.
“We would just get so excited about some of these things (at first),” Pituch said. “There was many a high five that was had.”
“We’re getting too cynical now,” Sorensen said. “We used to do a lot more high fives. We used to get one meeting with somebody and be dancing in elevators afterward. You kind of need some of that naïveté at the start.”