Students attempt to solve modern problems with social startups

Starting a company isn’t always just about making money.

More and more UNC students have recently decided to begin startups that focus on fixing modern problems in the world.

These “social startups” are often created by undergraduate students and grown through UNC facilities such as 1789 Venture Lab and the Campus Y’s CUBE social innovation hub. Once students decide on business plans, they can look to campus entrepreneurship contests for funding.

“I think the interest in social entrepreneurship is a global phenomenon, and universities are catching up to the phenomenon,” said Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship.

“I think most thoughtful people — and that’s really reflecting of college campuses — see the issues that we face as a global community.”

One student, junior Nikhil Jyothinagaram , decided in high school that he wanted to better the experience of donating to charity organizations in India by creating a website, Kliink.com where donors could directly interact with beneficiaries.

“I realized I had no idea how to do it,” he said.

Jyothinagaram, an entrepreneurship minor, said the Campus Y and 1789 allowed him to connect with other social innovators and build a team.

He joined forces with fellow UNC students Cody Owens , Kevin Jang and Paige Sferrazza to help build his project, and the team is a finalist in the Carolina Challenge startup competition, the next round of which takes place March 26. He expects the site to go live in June.

Junior Patrick Mateer, a math and economics major, said he was interested in sustainable agriculture, and used the CUBE to develop his startup, Seal the Seasons, which competed in a state-wide social entrepreneurship competition at N.C. Agricultural & Technical University.

Mateer said workshops in the CUBE taught him a lot about the intricacies of business plans, which he hadn’t yet learned in the classroom.

“As a non-business major, a lot of those things I wasn’t aware of, or I wasn’t familiar with,” he said. “That was helpful because I went from very little understanding to a lot of understanding very quickly.”

Cone said the traditional nonprofit model can be limiting, and some ideas that help the world would best be implemented by people running a for-profit startup.

“They’re looking at innovative ways where their motivation is still social good, but they say, ‘What are all the tools I can use to advance a solution to that?’” he said.

Cone added that exposure to entrepreneurship is helpful for all students, no matter what career they pursue, because they teach fundamental problem-solving skills.

“I think people are beginning to see this as a broader skill set than just starting a company,” she said.

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