What could you do with $5 and three hours? The GreenHouse microenterprise challenge

sticky notes on a tableAt the beginning of each school term, St. Paul’s GreenHouse students are put through their paces in the GreenHouse Boot Camp, where they are introduced to the program and its approach. In thinking about a quick start to this term, Brendan Wylie-Toal, Program Manager and Start-Up Coach of GreenHouse, observes,

"When students are trying to build a new venture, it’s helpful for them to have had an experience of going through the ideation journey—where they come up with and implement an idea."

In order to do this, during this term’s Boot Camp, GreenHouse students were offered a challenge based on the Stanford $5 Challenge. Student groups were given $5 and three hours and were told to “create the most value” with their seed capital. Their only other rule was to “not be evil.”

Two of the groups used profit as their measurement of value—with one making and selling colouring books and the other group offering a cleaning service in the St. Paul’s residences. A third group measured the value of its activity (giving out hot chocolate at a public square) by the number of smiles they generated. The final group, which made a video promoting GreenHouse, measured its value by number of page views.

“We were hoping for three outcomes,” says Brendan. “First, we wanted students to understand the value of prototyping and to recognize that while planning is useful, often things don’t go according to plan. Secondly, we hoped they would recognize the power of working together collaboratively. Finally, we wanted them to see how much they really could do in a short time.”

Laura Morrison, a fourth-year Recreation and Leisure Studies who is in her second term at GreenHouse, was instantly excited by the challenge. “Immediately I knew that this challenge wasn’t about the money because $5 isn’t enough seed money to count on. It’s more about how you can create value with nothing, or with what your own assets are.”

Picture of Facebook post of students' videoLaura’s group quickly identified their own social networks as being their biggest asset and decided to develop a promotional video about GreenHouse, which they posted on their Facebook pages, tagging the people in the video. They hoped to get 500 views, but actually got 1,300 views, showing them the effectiveness and power of their social media, especially when combined.

"A lot of people know a little bit about GreenHouse, and we knew that there would be measurable value for the program if we promoted it to our networks."

She observes that the lessons learned from the project are ones group members will apply to their future social enterprises and projects.

Fifth-year Math and Business student Alex Wong and her group also used the value of social connections, although in their case it was to sell a product. They used their seed capital to print free downloadable colouring pages, small cards to package the pages, and coloured pencils—capitalizing on the trendy stress reliever of adult colouring books. Alex and her group sold copies of the books to friends, family, and acquaintances. “We knew our audience,” Alex says, “and marketed our product to them.” In hindsight, Alex’s group decided they would have used social media to raise awareness if they had had more time. Another key to the success of their project was that they let their customers know that proceeds would go to the Canadian Mental Health Association, a charity connected with the mental health benefits of their product.

Students holding cleaning supplies.The group Zied Etleb (fourth-year Honours Science) and Konica Kochar (fourth-year Arts and Business) were in quickly learned the value of social causes in an enterprise. They also sought profit as the goal of their microenterprise, but determined that they would donate proceeds to the Salvation Army’s homelessness programs, a cause that was important to some group members. While they decided to raise funds by going through the St. Paul’s residences with a cart of cleaning supplies, offering to clean students’ rooms in exchange for a donation to their charity, they quickly discovered that not all students were comfortable with allowing strangers to enter their rooms to clean them, so they changed their pitch to ask for a donation, offering room cleaning as a thank you. Group members were surprised that many students – especially grad students—were more supportive than they had expected.

"When you work on a venture, it’s easy to focus on dollars or numbers of clients, but there’s a hidden value in social causes and the impact you can have."

Group of students drinking hot chocolate. Fifth-year Math and Business student Nayani (Nia) Rajamohan didn’t want to focus on money when the challenge was introduced. “I’ve done a lot of charity initiatives before where I’ve collected money or done fundraising,” says Nia. “I didn’t want to do another one.” Instead Nia and her group decided that the value they would measure would be smiles received in exchange for free hot chocolate. With the support of a local restaurant, Nia’s team prepared and handed out cups of hot chocolate to skaters in Waterloo Town Square, and later spaghetti to St. Paul’s students. For this team, the lessons came in learning how to talk with people, to change their approach depending on their audience. They noted that dads were more likely to accept cups of hot chocolate than moms were. One other lesson this team learned was that the team members themselves were the ones who smiled the most and had the most fun during this initiative.

This term, GreenHouse is adopting Yoda’s famous line, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Thrust into a fast-paced challenge at the beginning of the term, students got a quick taste of what it means to do social enterprise.

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