Release Date: August 9, 2019
BUFFALO, N.Y — Standing at the front of a packed lecture hall, three University at Buffalo students wear colorful hair clips, pins and bags that were hand-sewn and embroidered by refugee women at the nonprofit Stitch Buffalo.
Kristie Bailey, Shannon Lach and Xingyu Chen are students in the Master of Social Work (MSW), MBA and global gender studies PhD programs, respectively. Together, they have spent the past two months interning at the organization. They analyzed the nonprofit’s operation, identified opportunities to improve efficiency and developed 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 10 mission-driven organizations to develop innovative solutions to social issues impacting Western New York. Every team is made up of an MSW student, an MBA student and—for the first time—a graduate-level researcher from the College of Arts and Sciences.
“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 UB School of Management.
Part of a strategic focus on social innovation, the program is presented by the School of Management, School of Social Work, College of Arts and Sciences, and UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars.
Throughout the summer, each team spent four days a week at their partner organization, and one day together with their classmates, learning from social work and management faculty or completing community service projects. On August 2, the fellowship culminated with the Pitch for a Cause competition, during which each team pitched for seed funding so their partner organization could build upon and implement the solution they developed.
“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 UB School of Social Work.
Stitching together a solution
For Bailey, 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.
Located in the city’s Grant Ferry neighborhood, Stitch Buffalo advances social justice for local refugee women by facilitating cross-cultural exchange and promoting economic empowerment. Founded in 2014, the nonprofit has become a thriving community of 55 women from five countries, who sew and sell textile goods from the organization’s storefront and online.
“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 system and inventory process, as well as programs to help members develop retail and financial literacy skills.
Meanwhile, the other Social Impact Fellow teams completed projects addressing pressing issues like domestic violence, voting reform, childhood poverty and more. In addition to Stitch Buffalo, this year’s teams partnered with ACV Auctions Inc., Canopy of Neighbors, Erie County Department of Social Services, Family Justice Center of Erie County, Habitat for Humanity Buffalo, Journey’s End Refugee Services, LegWorks, Partnership for the Public Good and the Service Collaborative.
In every case, bringing together social work, management and other disciplines—including gender studies, music composition, media study, political science and sociology—resulted in a richer experience for the fellows and a stronger project for the organizations.
“We may have different points of view, but we all treated each other with respect,” Lach says. “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.”
Advocating for their cause
“Ready, set—pitch,” called Thomas Ulbrich, assistant dean for social innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives in the School of Management and School of Social Work.
With that edict, the Pitch for a Cause competition was underway. Each team had five minutes to present their projects to a judging panel of community leaders: Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker, president and CEO, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo; Anne Spisiak, executive director, Cantalician Center for Learning; Royce Woods, executive director, Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center; and Sujata Yalamanchili, partner, Hodgson Russ LLP.
First place went to the team from Stitch Buffalo, which will use the $2,000 prize to implement the digital sale and inventory systems they recommended.
Meanwhile, coming in second was Rachit Anand, Jake Friedman and Cassie Malough, who are students in the comparative literature PhD, MSW and MSW/MBA programs, respectively. Their $1,000 prize will go toward enhancing the Service Collaborative’s Beds for Buffalo program, which constructs beds for children in need. (Earlier this summer, all of the fellows joined forces on a service project to support the nonprofit’s efforts.)
“For me, 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. “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.