January 5, 2015 Student projects help firms address poverty, hunger

Whether helping to fight poverty around the world while keeping an eye toward sustainability or equipping a local food pantry with the tools to maximize its impact on hungry families in Columbus, students at Fisher are making business work for good.

Nonprofit, MBA students fighting poverty one step at a time

What happens when shoes begin to wear out, are no longer fashionable, or just don’t fit any more? MBA students at Fisher recently worked with a nonprofit organization in its mission to divert millions of pounds of discarded shoes away from landfills and instead use them to fight poverty.

Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based nonprofit, distributes used shoes and clothing to people in need worldwide while fostering microenterprise programs that create jobs in disadvantaged communities. The organization enlisted the help of Fisher students to address key challenges facing the nonprofit. The students were a part of Senior Lecturer Neil Drobny’s Business and the Environment course.

The 40 students were broken into teams and spent seven weeks researching one of five issues: creating a marketing plan for the organization; product procurement; product recycling; creation of a domestic microenterprise model; and viral campaigns. They presented to Soles4Souls Chief Development Officer Kevin Cherep earlier this month.

“To have other companies dig into these topics to the level and quality in which these students did would have cost us $10,000 on the low side,” Cherep said. “We haven’t done anything like this before. But these students were able to provide us with pragmatic solutions. I was riveted by their presentations.”

Cherep was so impressed that he and the CFO at Soles4Souls reached out students the following day for additional insights.

Drobny, who has taught the course for 10 years, said: “It was evident that the students put not only their brilliant minds to work on the issue but also invested their heart and soul in helping Soles4Souls move the needle in solving a worldwide problem.”

Matt Becker, a student in the course and a recent graduate of Fisher's MBA for Working Professionals program provided Cherep with suggestions for how Soles4Souls could best handle the volume of shoes unable to be repurposed. He appreciated the opportunity to work on a project that provided real-world deliverables.

“This was a live business case where we were sitting across from the folks who run the business, so there was personal interaction and involvement with them that gave us an extra impetus to study as best we could and put some sweat equity into it,” he said. “Experiential learning has been a differentiator for me at Fisher. It’s getting out there and learning by doing – the kind of learning that happens in the real world.”

Undergraduate student helping the hungry

It’s not every day that an unpaid intern gets the opportunity to help put food on the tables of hundreds of families, but that’s what Sophia Mullins is doing. Mullins, a sophomore finance student, is working with the Broad Street Food Pantry in Columbus to help the organization implement an improved cost analysis model to maximize its food purchases for needy families.

Drawing heavily on lessons from her introductory business and analytics courses, Mullins’ model takes into account variables such as the number and size of families that visit the pantry each month, the items they choose and the average cost per family. She presented her model to the organization’s board of directors in October, and the pantry recently began implementing it.

“It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience,” she said. “I can see how this is going to help pantry operations, not only with funding as it is presented to donors, but also in making decisions that will affect the average cost model. Seeing those results and knowing it’s going to have tangible impacts in the future is huge.”

Kathy Kelly-Long, director of the Broad Street Food Pantry, has been impressed with Mullins’ organization, dedication and independence.

“Sophia took the time to understand the project and appreciates its impact,” Kelly-Long said. “She came in and volunteered in the pantry several days before starting the project. Talking to the different people we serve really gave her a good understanding of our mission. Tools like Sophia’s model are helping us make a difference.”

Said Mullins: “This experience has helped me go beyond the average internship experience. I’m using my natural skill set to dive deeper into an organization, and I know that I’m making an impact instead of just going through the motions of day-to-day volunteering.”