Social Impact Fellows use diverse perspectives and skills to make a difference
By Matthew Biddle
Three UB students stand in front of a packed lecture hall, wearing colorful hair clips, pins and bags that were hand-sewn and embroidered by refugee women at Stitch Buffalo.
Together, Kristie Bailey, Xingyu Chen and Shannon Lach spent two months interning at the nonprofit, analyzing its operation, identifying opportunities to improve efficiency and developing a plan to sustain its tremendous growth.
Now, they’re ready to pitch for their cause.
It’s all part of UB’s Social Impact Fellows program, which places student teams at mission-driven organizations to develop innovative solutions to social issues impacting Western New York. Every team is made up of an MBA student, a Master of Social Work (MSW) student and a graduate-level researcher from another UB program.
“Students from a variety of disciplines work together with partners in the community to help organizations boost the triple bottom line—people, planet and profit—and advance the communities they serve,” explains Paul Tesluk, dean of the School of Management.
Part of a strategic focus on social innovation, the program is presented each summer by the School of Management and School of Social Work, in collaboration with UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars and other UB schools.
Teams spend four days a week at their partner organization, and one day with their classmates, learning from social work and management faculty or completing community service projects. The fellowship culminates with the Pitch for a Cause competition, when teams pitch for seed funding to help their partner organization build upon and implement their solution.
“The Social Impact Fellows program is about bringing diverse students and perspectives together in a blended disciplinary model to change the way all of us—students, faculty and community partners—view things,” says Nancy J. Smyth, dean of the School of Social Work.
For Bailey, an MSW student, working with her teammates at Stitch Buffalo was the perfect opportunity to gain new skills and perspective, while exploring her longtime interests in ethical and sustainable fashion and fair labor practices.
Founded in 2014, Stitch Buffalo is a thriving community of local refugee women from five countries, who sew and sell textile goods from a storefront and online. The nonprofit advances social justice for members by promoting cross-cultural exchange and economic empowerment.
“I was looking to see how you balance social good with making a profit,” Bailey says. “As soon as we walked in, we noticed the welcoming atmosphere and the evident positive regard the women had for one another. Our challenge was to suggest tweaks to improve certain things but not affect the good things.”
After conducting an in-depth analysis of Stitch Buffalo and other like-minded organizations, the team devised a three-part plan that called for adding a digital point-of-sale and inventory system, as well as programs to help members develop retail and financial literacy skills.
Meanwhile, at other area organizations, the Social Impact Fellows completed projects to address such issues as childhood poverty, domestic violence, the foster system, fresh food access and voting reform. In every case, bringing together social work, management and other disciplines—including gender studies, music, media, political science and sociology—resulted in a richer experience for the fellows and a stronger outcome for the organizations.
“We may have different points of view, but we all treated each other with respect,” says Lach, an MBA student on the Stitch Buffalo team. “No matter what I do going forward, I’m always going to hear Kristie in the background—in a good way—and remember that people matter. I knew that already, but now understand it on a deeper level thanks to her.”
“Ready, set—pitch,” calls Thomas Ulbrich, assistant dean for social innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives. With that edict, the Pitch for a Cause competition is underway, and each student team has five minutes to present their projects to a judging panel of community leaders.
Second place went to the team from the Service Collaborative of WNY: Rachit Anand, Jake Friedman and Cassie Malough, who are in the comparative literature PhD, MSW and MSW/MBA programs, respectively. Their $1,000 prize will enhance the agency’s Beds for Buffalo program, which constructs beds for children in need.
In the end, the Stitch Buffalo team won first place and a $2,000 prize, which the nonprofit will use to launch the digital systems they recommended.
“This experience was a reassurance of my future career options,” says Chen, one of the winners, who hopes to launch a social enterprise in her native China after completing her doctorate in global gender studies. “Usually, a PhD student goes into higher education, but I want to seek something else. The whole experience reassured me that I could do it and do it well—with the help of other people.”
The Social Impact Fellows program is made possible through the generous support of many individuals and organizations.