What’s happening with the Levitt Center?

By Jessica Tang ’16

When people think of entrepreneurship, a few terms come easily to mind: startups, ventures and new ideas. What many often forget, though, is how important people are to the development of small businesses and that social issues are typically at the core of their foundation. The Levitt Center, in its new project to encourage social entrepreneurship on campus, hopes to make Hamilton a place where the social side of ideas will never be an oversight.

Teddy Clements ’14, Eren Shultz ’15, Nick Solano ’14 and Evan Warnock ’14, also known as the Innovation Team, are the student leaders behind the Levitt Center’s new initiative and have been working on a number of smaller projects that will allow the program at Hamilton to become a well-rounded and well-established resource for students.

One of their main and perhaps most pressing projects is the creation of a physical space (to be called the “Innovation Space”) where the Hamilton community can convene and exchange ideas. This will be an extension of the Levitt Center’s current location and will include lounge areas located at the back of the Center and a new gallery space to showcase a specific social theme.

Shultz noted, “The idea is to create a space on campus that’s like no other study space, that inspires people to be creative, that students can change and put their own personal touch on.” For example, Shultz mentioned the whiteboard walls that have been set up at the Center, which allow students to freely jot down ideas and brainstorm together. According to Warnock, the proposal plans for this space are currently being put into action.

The Innovation Team has also planned two major workshops, one of which occurred earlier this month, called the Startup Experience. The two-day workshop attracted students interested in social and commercial entrepreneurship. Shultz explained in his article on the Hamilton website how students worked in six teams to learn about “problem identification, tech trends, design thinking, business planning, customer development and pitching,” all of which culminated in them gaining the confidence to create a viable startup. The first day focused on a given social problem, its multiple facets, complexity and context; the second, on teaching how to create a business plan and articulate this plan to potential investors, business partners and customers. The workshop ended with a two-hour pitch competition, in which students presented their ideas and were awarded prizes based on their presentations.

Another workshop is part of the Levitt Center’s Social Innovation Fellows Program, which is geared towards students who are interested in applying their idea to a social problem. The workshop will take place during the second week of spring break and will be led by Anke Wessels, who teaches an award-winning course on social innovation at Cornell University. Selected students will receive funding and guidance from alumni and community members and, according to Shultz and Warnock, learn how to take an idea to the next level and bring it to fruition by learning entrepreneurial processes, such as implementing a business plan and generating a revenue model.

Other projects include creating an alumni network featuring alumni who have experience in the social entrepreneurship field and inviting them to speak on campus. A number of faculty, particularly in the social sciences, are also involved in the Levitt Center’s new initiative, and each have a specific interest. For example, Warnock mentioned that Professor of Education Susan Mason is working to make her classes more “externally relevant” for students. Mason is especially interested in service learning and providing other opportunities for students to tie course materials to how people in the real world are fixing problems in the education system.

Schultz added that Associate Professor of Economics Julio Videras, who is also the director of the Levitt Center, is focusing on how to create institutional change.

“Videras is very focused on public policy and environmental policy,” he said. “The thing with policy is, as an independent entrepreneur, you’re usually not going to affect public policy. But social entrepreneurship actually applies.”

Other professors involved in the Levitt Center’s initiative include Professors of Economics Stephen Wu and Derek Jones; Professor of Philosophy Marianne Janack; Associate Professor of Geosciences Todd Rayne; Associate Professor of Anthropology Chaise LaDousa; and Associate Professor of Sociology Stephen Ellingson.

Compared to that of other colleges, faculty involvement seems to be stronger at Hamilton. During an event at Middlebury College held by Ashoka, the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, ten Hamilton faculty attended, whereas only about two or three faculty of other colleges attended.

Student response has also been strong. The Innovation Team sent an all-campus survey three weeks ago that asked if students were interested in social entrepreneurship, if they had a specific idea they wanted to work on and, if they did not know about social entrepreneurship, what kinds of events they would like to see to get engaged. According to Shultz, from the 250 responses that were received, which exceeded expectations, most of them were positive. Around 60 percent of the survey respondents were female, which was very telling.

“Right now we don’t have any females on the Team, and we had our doubts at first that maybe entrepreneurship was stigmatized,” noted Shultz. The survey results, however, were very encouraging and demonstrated that entrepreneurship was not as stigmatized as the Team had thought.

From Shultz’s and Warnock’s responses, it is clear that they want to get as many students as possible involved in social entrepreneurship at Hamilton. They believe it is a sustainable project for Hamilton because of the interconnectedness of social issues and entrepreneurship, and because of the well-rounded education that Hamilton students receive.

“Hamilton students have a serious grasp on today’s pressing issues,” said Warnock. The social entrepreneurship initiative’s goals coincide with Hamilton’s goals that students will learn how to apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world. According to Shultz, while Hamilton provides many leadership programs, such as Adirondack Adventure and Hamilton SAVES, it has been difficult to bring these groups together. The social entrepreneurship initiative would allow these groups to collaborate, especially with the planned new space.

The Innovation Team hopes that people will begin to see social entrepreneurship as viable career field. “People get funneled into being a doctor or being a lawyer. They don’t really know that they can make a career out of trying to addressing social problems.” Shultz said.

The Team stressed that the Initiative won’t work unless more students get involved. They encourage all students to come to the Levitt Center and meet with them or just stop by and visit with people there to brainstorm their ideas. With enough student involvement the Innovation Team will become an important part of Hamilton culture.


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