BYU students tackle homelessness in social innovations competition

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Jill Piacitelli
From left: BYU MBA students Rachel Whitlock with her daughter Allison, and Dan Sisco, Ryan Adkins, Shawn Merrill, and Lava Mae Senior Director of Programs and Impact Kris Kepler pose with the $3,000 check they won for finishing first in the Ballard Center’s Social Innovations Solutions Competition. The winners were announced on Nov. 3. (Jill Piacitelli)

One hundred college students, 10 days, and one social problem to solve.

BYU Ballard Center’s Social Innovations Solutions Competition invited students across all disciplines to come together and to creatively provide a realistic solution for a nonprofit organization.

The case competition is organized by the Ballard Center, an academic center with the goal to encourage social innovation. BYU MBA student Jill Piacitelli served as a co-director over the competition.

“The cool thing about this competition is participating and trying to figure out a solution that would be of social good,” Piacitelli said. “It is a really transformative experience for (students) on a team. For the organization, it is a huge gift.”

The center partnered with Lava Mae — a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that provides mobile hygiene services to the homeless — to make the competition a reality. The nonprofit’s key programs include mobile showers and pop-up care villages, with a goal of providing one million showers to those experiencing homelessness.  

Lava Mae’s case question revolved around becoming financially independent from donors and facilitating the replication of the mobile shower model by other nonprofits. The organization is not looking to expand their operations, but rather their influence through other nonprofit partners.

The competition started on Oct. 23, giving teams of three to five BYU students 10 days to analyze and present a solution meeting Lava Mae’s needs. Prize money of $9,000 was available to be split among the finalists.

A group of representatives from the Ballard Center and nonprofit organizations in Utah, as well as Lava Mae’s Senior Director of Programs and Impact Kris Kepler, participated as judges in the competition.

Ryan Adkins
The winning team created a product line of body wash, shampoo and conditioner surrounding the key attributes Lava Mae focuses on. (Ryan Adkins)

The winning team consisted of Dan Sisco, Ryan Adkins, Rachel Whitlock, Eban Beltran and Shawn Merrill. Together they created a product line called Radical Home: “products for home for people without one.” The line consisted of a body wash, shampoo, and conditioner which would be manufactured and distributed through partners like Dollar Shave Club, Air BnB and Amazon.

BYU MBA student Rachel Whitlock of the first place team said the group’s strategy was to focus on realistic innovation as part of a plan Lava Mae might actually implement down the road.

“Our thought was, if we’re going to do this, let’s do everything we can to win and give Lava Mae something radical but feasible, that fits their values, and is actually helpful,” Whitlock said.

The Social Innovations Competition has been held every winter semester over the last several years. But in an effort to have more student participation, the Ballard Center held the case competition this fall as well.

Traditionally, the winter semester competition partners with an international nonprofit. This fall’s competition was the first to be sponsored by a domestic organization. Previous student participants vocalized a desire to address homelessness as the social issue the competition focused on, according to Piacitelli.

The partner for winter semester’s Social Innovations Solutions Competition is yet to be announced. Piacitelli, who will remain in her position as student co-director, said the competition will be held in the third week of March and the theme will focus on agriculture and sustainability in Southeast Asia. 

Lava Mae walked away from the competition with access to the presentations of all teams, not just the finalists. Kepler says she is currently creating the organization’s plan for 2018 and is using the presentations to assist her in the process.

Jill Piacitelli
From left: Director of the Ballard Center Todd Manwaring stands with Chloe Jensen, Kris Kepler, and Jill Piacitelli in presenting the center’s $5,000 donation to Lava Mae. (Jill Piacitelli)

The Ballard Center also made a $5,000 donation to the nonprofit, in hopes of facilitating the students’ ideas. However, the nonprofit partner is free to use the money as they see fit.

“That money is going to go to how we can galvanize other replicators to get showers on the street to help the population,” Kepler said. “It could go directly to our replication program, mainly to make sure that goal happens.”

BYU MBA student Ryan Adkins of the winning team hopes Lava Mae will use all of the presented ideas in developing a solution that will benefit the organization’s mission.

“I would hope that they go back as a team, comb through all the presentations, and pull out all of the things they like, that they think would be best, and form one strategy that pulls from lots of these presentations because lots of them had great ideas as well,” Adkins said.