Tuesday’s Social Entrepreneurship panel, hosted by the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, provided a platform for University students to practice pitching their ideas and to hear about each other’s projects.

“Learning how to pitch, learning how to talk about your work in front of other people, is surprisingly important, sometimes frustratingly important,” said Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship Director Makaela Kingsley ’98. “It’s how you garner support, how you garner partners, stakeholders, even clients.”

Many of the student panelists were seeking the Patricelli Center’s $5,000 Seed Grants, and their pitches often drew on personal experiences.

Alvin Chitena ’19, who hails from Zimbabwe, got the idea for his project after taking COMP112: “Introduction to Programming” with Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Olivier Hermant his first semester. Coming into the University, Chitena did not have any programming skills whatsoever. He explained that Zimbabwe’s high school education system does not cover programming or computer skills. After taking Hermant’s course, Chitena became a strong supporter of computer programming.

“I knew that I’d found something I was passionate about, that I could use to better my community, that I could have a strong connection with,” Chitena said.

Now, he is working with the Patricelli Center, and a friend at U.C. Berkeley, to establish free programming schools across Zimbabwe and to encourage the incorporation of computer education into Zimbabwe’s high school curriculum.

A former student of Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education, Bashaun Brown, has a project that is similarly motivated by a personal experience.

“The idea for [my project] T.R.A.P. House came while I was in prison, talking to a lot of people who felt like the only thing they knew how to do was hustle and the only thing that they could go back to was hustling,” Brown said. “My message to them was, you don’t ever have to hustle again…you can use that same savvy that you had while you were hustling for a legit business.”

There weren’t a lot of jobs in the town of Plainfield, N.J., where Brown grew up, and he witnessed a lot of people who felt forced to sell drugs to make a living. Brown is hoping to help change that. T.R.A.P. House will mentor former prison inmates, helping them to develop ideas and implement plans to start their own businesses. Assuming the individuals he helps—TRAPstars, as Brown calls them—move back to neighborhoods and towns like the one Brown came from, their successful businesses would provide additional jobs and help the local economy.

Fritzgi Dessources ’18, from Haiti and Florida, was motivated to help Haitian-Dominican refugees made stateless by the Dominican Republic’s 2014 law that stripped Dominican citizenship from Dominican-born individuals of Haitian ancestry who were unable to prove their parents’ citizenship. After reaching out to journalist and author Jonathan Katz, who has written extensively about the Haitian earthquake and international aid, Dessources contacted Kara Lightburn on Twitter, who is the executive director of Social Tap Inc. and its Haiti Initiative. Lightburn and Dessources discussed some of the problems facing these refugees who had relocated to Haiti.

Without access to stoves, the women and children who do most of the cooking suffer the consequences of excess smoke exposure, which can cause potentially lethal breathing problems. Dessources is working to solve this problem by tackling another: the lack of ice available to Haitian fishermen, who often have to travel to the Dominican side of the island to get their ice. Sunrise Energy Concepts makes a solar-powered icemaker that sells for $7,000, well within the limits of the $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace Grant for which Dessources applied. Income generated by the icemaker, Dessources said, could go toward purchasing cookstoves for refugees and financing their children’s education.

Kingsley, who sits on the Davis Projects for Peace Committee, thought Dessources’s project sounded promising and sought University funding.

“We thought, this fits so well with this one-year initiative here at Wesleyan, the refugee relief initiative, and so we reached out to the President’s office, to the people behind that special initiative,” Kingsley said. “This project is so in sync with what we want to do as a university this year, so Wesleyan is funding Fritzgi’s project.”

Rebecca Winkler ’16 is working with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation, at the intersection of human and animal concerns and rights.

“In 1989, there was a big ban on logging, which was the main industry elephants were used in in Thailand,” Winkler said. “That ban just criminalized the jobs of around 2,000 people, with no plan for what they were supposed to do afterwards. The context was really right for a new industry to crop up, and that’s what happened. The people who work in this elephant tourism industry—called Mahouts—are exploited. They don’t get a salary or any benefits, and since they’re only paid in tips, they’re incentivized to overwork their elephants.”

Winkler mentioned that there was existing awareness of the problem, but it lacked real solutions.

“We also realized that the people trying to come up with solutions to the problem had been talking about the problem a lot, but they weren’t talking with the people who were directly experiencing the issue,” she said.

Trying to bridge that gap, Winkler and the Mahouts Elephant Foundation have been working with Karen ethnic minority villages with long histories of human-elephant co-labor. Together, they are creating elephant reserves which would employ Mahouts, provide elephants with an enhanced quality of life, and bring in ecotourists.

The 2015-16 Patricelli Seed Grant winners will be announced on March 6.

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