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Ain Center grant will support social entrepreneurs

September 29, 2016
four students standing in warehouse

Simon MBA students Kat Cook, Fahria Omar, and Sarah Spoto tour a Foodlink warehouse as part of their project to address food deserts in urban neighborhoods.

Three Simon Business School MBA candidates want to place frozen food vending machines in underprivileged urban neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce, so residents have access to healthy meals.

Their start-up, Oasis Foods, is an example of the social entrepreneurship the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship hopes to encourage with a $538,000 federal Economic Development Administration grant. The funding will also support entrepreneurial training in rural Finger Lakes communities.

The federal funding, matched by the Ain Center, includes designation of Rochester as an EDA-supported “university center” – the first in the Rochester region. The EDA program is specifically designed to marshal university resources to support economic development strategies in the regions where the universities are located.

“I think this shows where we stand nationally,” said Duncan Moore, the University’s vice provost for entrepreneurship. “We’ve raised the bar with our entrepreneurship programs.”

Moore says the five-year project will focus on two main areas:

  • Support and training for student venture teams who want to address poverty, poor education and nutrition, and institutional and societal biases in urban neighborhoods, led by Michael Wohl, associate director of social entrepreneurship at Simon.
  • A similar approach, including an entrepreneurial boot camp program for nontechnical entrepreneurs, in rural communities in the Finger Lakes, in partnership with SUNY Geneseo, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and local chambers of commerce.

The City of Rochester, U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter, High Tech Rochester, Excel Partners, and SUNY Geneseo were key supporters of the University’s application for the funding.

Judith Albers, the VanArsdale Chair of Entrepreneurship at Geneseo, said four to five teams of students in her class will be working on projects that include social and/or agricultural entrepreneurship this school year.

“We are happy to be part of this,” she said.

Moore said the increasing interest among business majors in social entrepreneurship stems from the fact that “students today are much more socially engaged.”

Wohl, who teaches an urban entrepreneurship class at Simon, says “social entrepreneurship is a recognition there are societal issues that are vital and important to a thriving and sustainable community.”

Oasis Foods began as a project in Wohl’s class last fall. The challenge was how to address the so-called “food deserts” in urban neighborhoods that lack major grocery stores, where residents must rely instead on convenience stores and fast food chains with less nutritious offerings.

The three-student team of Kat Cook, Fahria Omar, and Sarah Spoto came up with the idea of a frozen preprepared meal company that could serve its healthy products straight to consumers via vending machines. The team eventually took first place in the Social and Non-Profit Entrepreneurship category at this year’s statewide, intercollegiate New York Business Plan Competition. The students received $10,000 in seed money and are now pursuing their project at the University of Rochester Student Incubator in collaboration with FoodLink, a Rochester nonprofit food bank.

“Students are more interested in social entrepreneurship today because that’s where business is going,” Spoto says. “My generation – the millennials — are interested in not just treating stakeholders well, but actually making a positive impact beyond profits.”



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Category: Society & Culture