When the students in Professor of Management Mary Lynn Mann’s interdisciplinary “Ideas to Action” class take to the front of the room at the end of the semester, it’s not just for your everyday presentation. These students have been working in groups all semester to develop a business idea summary for their own social entrepreneurship venture—a profitable enterprise that also helps solve a social problem. And they aren’t just sharing their ideas with their professor. They’re pitching their businesses to a panel of experts from the Asheville business community, including a few UNC Asheville alumni.
“This competition holds a really special place in my heart,” said Jacqui Henderson-Scott, a 2017 alumna who is currently pursuing her MBA-SCE (social entrepreneurship) at Lenior-Rhyne University. “I participated two years in a row while pursuing my management degree; my emphasis area was entrepreneurship.”
Henderson-Scott also works at Galaxy Digital, a local start-up company that provides volunteer management software to nonprofit organizations. It’s a career move she credits in part to her participation in the UNC Asheville program. “The Ideas to Action class and the competition really inspired me to look at entrepreneurship on a social level,” Henderson-Scott said. “There are so many innovative for-profit ideas out there that can really push a social mission.”
Justin Belleme ’05 is the founder of JB Media Group, and has served as a judge for the Ideas to Action competition since 2015, when he saw a student team from UNC Asheville win the statewide Social Entrepreneurship Competition and Conference. “I was there doing industry research for my company as we were looking to focus more on social and environmental ventures as we expanded beyond Asheville,” said Belleme, who was named the 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Asheville Area of Chamber of Commerce. Being involved in the Ideas to Action competition allows him to help recreate his own experience at UNC Asheville for other students.
“One of the biggest influences on my career was a project that I was involved with where my eventual senior project advisor, Professor Walt Turner, created a project that lasted several semesters where his web development classes worked on a real-world project with the 28th Judicial District Bar Association to work on an interactive court calendar system,” Belleme said. “I got experience in design, project management, and other real-world skills that have carried over into my work growing the company and managing my team at JB Media Group.”
Arnaud Levasseur, who was a judge for Ideas to Action for the first time this year, graduated in 1998, and explored several jobs before he found the career that made him happy. He started off handling international sales with a local manufacturer before attending the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC Chapel Hill for his MBA. He then worked for a consulting company in New York City.
“I hated it,” he said.
So he started his own business, MGCOM Inc., a hybrid distributor of electronic components with global sourcing and supply capabilities. His experience finding the right career fit is one he hopes current UNC Asheville students can learn from.
“Don’t be afraid to go for what you want,” Levasseur said. “But it’s ok not knowing what you want to do; it took me five to seven years after I graduated to figure it out and be comfortable with myself. Figure out what you want to do and what’s going to make you happy in life.”
Levasseur, Belleme and Scott-Henderson, came back to campus on Dec. 4, 2018, to join the panel of judges who would determine which students’ social entrepreneurship plan was the most comprehensive, and the most likely to succeed. They selected team Bridge the Gap, which addresses the issue of loneliness among seniors by providing a service that matches seniors with the company of individuals who listen to and record their stories. Students Lea Gilbert and Nathan Koerschner earned the first-place award and a $1,000 scholarship, taking home $500 each.
Team Sunroof, by Robert Britton and Gemma Gentlesk, took second place and a $250 scholarship each with their idea to create solar panels that attach to the top of vehicles in order to collect and store energy for home consumption. Lily Laramie and Caroline Tadych took third place with their Studio Arch idea, which would provide gallery and event space that helps to bridge connections with professional artists and the community, while creating opportunities for at-risk youth to express themselves through arts education.
“My hope is that all students participating in the competition, and in the class, will understand that social entrepreneurship is important to our future,” said Henderson-Scott. “We need more social innovation and I really hope that this competition inspires them to make a positive change and stay active in their community!”
Belleme hoped that the students would gain “more exposure to entrepreneurship and what it looks like to put a business plan together, and to consider both the challenges and opportunities that come from starting up a new business.”
“Be adventurous,” Levasseur said. “That’s the biggest thing; they’re going to fail, everybody has to fail a few times in their life, especially if you want to be an entrepreneur. I think you should be bold, and wanting to take risk, and there’s no better time than when you are getting started.”
For more information about Ideas to Action, visit their website.