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Doing the Right Thing ... With a Business Plan

I love the next generation.

This past weekend, I attended a symposium at the University of Michigan. It consisted of the presentations of final course projects done by students in a Winter 2010 class titled Social Venture Creation. Taught by Moses Lee and Nick Tobier, the class was thoroughly hands-on. Teams of students - mainly from the Colleges of Business and Engineering - used market principles to design a specific project to make the world a better place. See http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/story.php?id=7630.

What impressed me about the presentations was that they were both idealistic and realistic. The students, throughout the term, had studied the realities of business, and every presentation addressed issues of start-up costs, competition, risks, and sustainability.

I sat and listened as an academic psychologist, one who often asks students in my classes to write papers "applying" the ideas covered in our course. The papers are always good but very much pie-in-the-sky, reflecting the let George do it (or at least pay for it), attitude of many well-intended psychologists. In the real world, any project needs to have a business plan, and the business plans I heard at the symposium were good ones.

Four projects were presented. A panel of judges was assembled, all with special expertise in entrepreneurship. They listened to what each group said, asked tough questions, and eventually awarded $1000 to the best project.

The goal of the first project was to encourage the sharing of automobiles in Ann Arbor. Most cars sit throughout most days, and if owners were willing to rent out their cars to others who needed them for a few hours at a time to run errands, then everyone would benefit - except perhaps the local Detroit auto industry, a risk that was acknowledged.

The second project had as its goal the dissemination of medical information to health-care workers around the world by providing them with laptop computers preloaded with relevant databases. Part of this project was to allow these health care workers to pose questions to physicians about particular patients.

The third project focused on Kenya and how to allow teachers there to stay current with developments in their fields through Internet information and lessons plans. Appreciate that in Kenya, a typical classroom may have but one textbook, one that is often out-of-date. This project had to grapple with Internet access in Kenya. Most of us in the developed world take Internet access for granted, but elsewhere, the hardware - satellites or cell phones - must be put into place. The business plan by this group addressed these issues.

And the fourth project, my favorite and that of the judges as well, was to provide fresh produce for Detroit. Prepare dear reader, if you do not live in the Motor City, to be surprised by this fact: Detroit, with 800,000+ residents, has only 10 full-service grocery stores, which means stores that sell meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. I live a mere 45 miles away, in affluent Ann Arbor, a city with about 115,000 residents and several dozen full-service grocery stores, plus all sorts of "specialty" grocery stores (e.g., those selling Latin American food, Korean food, Middle Eastern food, Indian food, and so on). The food we eat is critical for our health, but what Detroit residents have are neighborhood convenience stores that specialize in junk and candy.

This fourth project had a detailed plan about how to put fresh vegetables into these already-existing neighborhood stores. You can read about their ideas at http://www.getfreshdetroit.com/. The students are going to make this happen, and the group leaders are moving to Detroit in May to work with the stores and community groups like churches. Wow.

These projects impressed and inspired me because they juxtaposed features that often seem at odds. They were all predicated on the idea that one could do good and make money, or at least break even. They blended lofty goals with hard-headed pragmatism. And the presentations by very young people were incredibly polished, among the best I have ever heard in any setting by any folks. By polished, I don't mean slick. I mean articulate, informed, and most importantly passionate.

I love the next generation. I think I'll stick around a while and see what they will do. My parents are members of the greatest generation. I think my own generation - Baby Boomers - is a middling one at best. But perhaps my students will be another great one.

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