GW to hand out cash prizes to kickstart social ventures

A new three-year, $350,000 entrepreneurship program will help students start companies that tackle global problems rather than only seek profits.

The University launched “GWupstart” last week and hired a social entrepreneurship coordinator who will lead workshops and advise students competing for a total of $65,000 in cash prizes over the next three years. The program fulfills the University’s commitment to action after hosting the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in 2012.

“We have so many students here who just have great ideas and are just passionate about their different causes and we want to be able to support them,” said Jim Chung, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship.

Student-run social ventures will compete for a $15,000 prize, split evenly among the top for-profit and non-profit competitors in a new track of GW’s annual Business Plan Competition. The awards will increase to $25,000 for each of the next two years of competition.

In addition to the awards, the $350,000 program pays for the new coordinator’s salary for three years, as well as programming and marketing.

Melanie Fedri, the new social entrepreneurship coordinator, will serve as a resource for students interested in diving into social ventures. Her workshops will also draw on the University’s network of alumni and local entrepreneurs who can mentor students, similar to programs run out of the Office of Entrepreneurship.

Fedri, who is currently working toward a Ph.D. in higher education at Pennsylvania State University, said she became involved with social innovation groups because of the “close to the ground” approach to taking on social issues.

“Young people and the world are looking for new ways to tackle these seemingly intractable problems,” Fedri said.

She added that GW’s socially minded students are an ideal crop to launch ventures. GW typically ranks high on lists that measure students and graduates most involved in politics, Teach for America, the Peace Corps and the armed forces.

The high number of students who participated in the Clinton Global Initiative University when GW hosted it two years ago prompted the University to invest more to stimulate these types of ideas.

In the long run, Executive Director for the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service Amy Cohen said she hopes to create more collaboration between similar programs the University sponsors or participates in, from the Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning to the Public Service Grant Commission.

Graduate student Matthew Wilkins, whose bamboo bike venture won the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative University competition, said he is “thrilled” about GW’s continued commitment to social entrepreneurship and has already met with Fedri.

“Social entrepreneurship is all about empowerment,” said Wilkins, who founded Pedal Forward with two other GW students. “GW Upstart does just that for our students, providing them with the resources to tackle today’s most pressing global issues.”

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