Niagara University is launching a poverty-focused social entrepreneurship program that aims to address some of the most significant problems facing Niagara Falls-area residents.
For its inaugural competition, "EntrepreNU2015," a Vincentian community enterprise project, challenges NU students to become directly engaged in finding new, self-sustaining, innovative solutions to the poverty-related issues of food, hunger and nutrition that confront so many Niagara Falls residents.
A recent community report commissioned by The John R. Oishei Foundation found approximately 15 percent of Niagara Falls' most vulnerable residents have urgent concerns around food. Parts of Niagara Falls have been designated as a food desert, or an area where people do not have adequate access to groceries.
"As a Catholic and Vincentian institution, we are committed to engaging our faculty, staff and students to serve whenever and wherever we are most needed," said the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., NU president. "Food insecurity is a significant challenge affecting the City of Niagara Falls, Niagara County and, consequently, the Buffalo-Niagara region. It is my vision that we will do whatever we can to use the tools of teaching, service and research to identify the causes of poverty and propose sustainable and impactful short- and long-term solutions. This competition is an important step."
Student teams will spend the fall attending workshops and preparing proposals, with three finalists chosen before the end of the semester. Each of the finalists will receive $500, along with additional resources, to develop a proposal into a full plan. In March, the winning team will receive up to $10,000 in startup funds, plus the opportunity to raise additional funds and resources to implement a plan.
The competition will officially launch Friday, Sept. 26, with a university-wide celebration during Niagara's annual Vincentian Heritage Week. An application kit that contains all of the details will be available during the event.
Each team will receive information about the challenges of food, nutrition and hunger faced by residents of Niagara Falls. In October and November, a series of workshops and presentations will provide teams with additional information and the tools needed to complete a successful proposal. Workshops will cover such topics as innovative and creative thinking and business plan development, as well as hunger and poverty, including field trips into the community to speak with residents who are facing these challenges every day.
"The outstanding mentor-mentee relationships that our professors have with our students will play a significant role in making this program a success. Our students will be the proprietors who are ultimately responsible for the ideas and the follow-through, but we plan to provide them with the resources, human and otherwise, that they need to be most effective," stated Dr. Tim Downs, provost.
"Hunger, good nutrition and access to quality food are persistent challenges confronting the poor in Niagara Falls, and throughout the U.S. and the world," said Niagara professor Dr. Kevin Blair. "Neither social services or businesses have been able to find self-sustaining ways of addressing these needs that lead to long-lasting solutions that also grow the local economy. We need something new, something innovative, something that hasn't been tried before."
Blair pointed out this competition is not intended to simply be an exercise using a hypothetical case study. "These are real neighbors struggling every day to put healthy and nutritional food on the table for their families. The competition is aimed at putting forth real solutions to a significant community problem."
The idea for the competition grew out of conversations between Blair (social work), Dr. Corey Bower (education) and faculty in NU's College of Business Administration. The discussion focused on the question of what role a university, and particularly a business college, should play in the alleviation of poverty. Out of these conversations came a small group of faculty and staff who began meeting in the fall of 2013 to develop a proposal that will now be implemented.
Bower said new ideas must be generated, noting the competition will leverage the resourcefulness and positive energy possessed by college students.
"My favorite thing about college students is that they're too optimistic to know what's not possible, so they constantly come up with ideas the rest of us would never consider," he said. "I love students' creativity and enthusiasm, and this is a great way to harness those to both help students think critically and help the community with a critical need. We know that students crave meaning and responsibility, so we can't wait to see what students come up with when they're given the opportunity to tackle a big problem."
While the competition is designed primarily for undergraduate students, graduate students are welcome to join teams in partnership with undergraduates. The competition encourages cross-disciplinary teams from across the university's four academic colleges.
"Our goal is to have hospitality majors collaborating with education and business students," said Dr. David Taylor, director of the Levesque Institute.
The pilot project has room for growth in future years. Tom Lowe, director of ReNU Niagara, said, "We may, down the road, be able to expand the competition to include recent alumni or possibly even create a parallel competition in the community itself."
Lowe, recently named to Business First's "30 Under Thirty," has been collaborating with several groups and organizations in the region that are working to improve access to healthy foods.
Other VCEP team members include Mitchell Alegre, Dr. Anna McNab and Vince Agnello (College of Business Administration); Dr. Joe Scarcelli (Hospitality and Tourism Management); and Yvette Suarez (Levesque Institute).
To learn more about Niagara University, visit www.niagara.edu.