It starts with an idea

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A couple of Denison students have an idea. It has to do with a run-down and abandoned building in Newark, Ohio, and the impact it could have on the economy of a city in need.

Is it an idea that will come to fruition? It’s too early to tell, but every great idea has to start somewhere.

Last week, Antrim Ross ’16 (Charles Town, W.Va.), Raul Cruz ’14 (Boston, Mass.), and Isabel Randolph ’16 (Columbus, Ohio) stood before a panel of experts and made the case for their non-profit called ReNewark, an idea they dreamed up during a week’s worth of activities, speakers, and brainstorming sessions as part of Denison’s Project Startup — a social entrepreneurship workshop.

The hope, said Cruz, is to renovate buildings to attract businesses — which could run the gamut from apartment housing to dance studios — in order to increase jobs, property value, and economic development in a struggling city.

Project Startup (formerly the Burton D. Morgan Program in Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship Education) has worked for six years to promote social change through the MAKE IT HAPPEN! Social Entrepreneurship Workshop. “Using Newark as a case study,” says Stephanie Hunt-Theophilus, director of the program, “students were asked to identify a problem, analyze the root causes, look at the current assets and needs in the community, and then develop a social innovation or intervention.”

That process, guided this year by Hunt-Theophilus and directed by Assistant Professor of Economics Fadhel Kaboub, began with a tour of South Newark and discussions with other social entrepreneurs in the area, including restaurateur Chris Ramsey and Lia Crosby ’12, who are working together through the Sparta Restaurant and Project Main Street in Newark to bring local residents access to quality food and resources; Jeremy Blake ’12, who created the South Newark Civic Association to focus on education, engagement, and partnership with local residents; Tom Atha ’05, founder of Earthwork Recording Studio and an advocate for economic development in Newark; and Joe DeLoss, a self-described “serial social entrepreneur,” who has founded several programs and non-profits, including Freshbox Catering for Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio. Students then met with Jennifer Thomas ’89, program director of the Knight Foundation, to hone their business pitches.

Just before the students took their own social innovations to the panel, Denison President Adam Weinberg stopped by to remind them why civic and social entrepreneurship matter. “The largest problem we face as a society is not knowledge,” said Weinberg. “We are all stuck in huge bureaucratic social institutions that won’t allow us to move at a pace in which we can solve these problems.” His advice? Think outside those constraints. “This campus should be a design laboratory to do creative work and create new approaches to old problems.”

Throughout the workshop, students discussed creative approaches to solving real problems in Newark and other struggling cities, including a new transportation system in the nearby city to help residents commute to work; a yogurt shop that doubles as a hub for mentoring high school students, and those building renovations aimed at increasing jobs, property value, and as Ross put it, allowing “Newark to reclaim its spot as one of Ohio’s cities of distinction.”

The students’ projects can go as far as they push them. Some are simply exercises in social entrepreneurship — dream ideas that die out with the start of classes. But others have gone on to become very real solutions, including one project from last year in which a team of students took their idea from the workshop all the way to the non-profit world.

This year’s panel, which included David Przybyla, director of organizational studies and associate professor of psychology; Jean Schelhorn, founder and president of Schelhorn, Olinger & Associates and director of commercialization at Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine; and Rick Coplin ’85, vice president of community partners ventures with TechColumbus, was there to help refine projects and to keep the students thinking about issues, business strategies, and marketing.

The experts were also there to offer some very practical guidance. Pryzbyla, for example, had just one more thing to say to the ReNewark team after all was said and done: “One piece of advice,” he told them. “Don’t put the dance studio above the apartments.”

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