Soon after graduating with a degree in political science, Dante Vasquez found himself chest-deep in rural ponds, measuring water levels and removing guinea worms from people in Savelugu, Ghana. The guinea worm is a parasite that enters the body from a water source and can grow up to three feet in the body within a year before it is even detected. As a regional deputy technical advisor for The Carter Center in Ghana and then Southern Sudan, it was Vazquez’s job to figure out how to eradicate the pest.
When Catherine (Cat) Johnson was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, she traveled to Ecuador for an internship in community economic development and to study abroad. She worked with the families of former child laborers, assisting children in getting back to school and families develop entrepreneurial skills. The experience revealed to her that a lot of child laborers are not orphans—they are children of parents who just need a little more support in skill sets and work force development.
Rishi Moudgil has spent the majority of his professional career marrying his passions for education and social enterprise. In 2007, he was a financial strategy fellow for the Chicago Public Education Fund where he focused on using venture philanthropy for leadership transformation within the Chicago Public School system. He has spent the past few years heading up the Nonprofit and Public Management Center at the University of Michigan—a school he loves so much, he used to be the anointed biggest fan of their marching band.
All three of these individuals share a few things. They all hold MBAs from Michigan’s Ross School of Business. They all grew up in Michigan and want to see Detroit thrive again. And they all work within the Center for Social Impact (CSI)—Ross’ newest commitment to social enterprise. The center celebrated its first year with an official launch event on Wednesday, April 22.
A SOCIAL IMPACT UMBRELLA
With its new center, Ross is taking the next step in the social impact evolution at Ross by serving as an umbrella and inviting other schools to join. “It’s a great advantage for us to be in the middle of so many high-performing graduate programs with great faculty and students,” says Moudgil, managing director for the center. “To make any real change, you need different perspectives. Having a different lens for looking at each problem is valuable. Engaging multidisciplinary and cross-sector teams is the best practice for social impact.”
And the center does just that. Faculty and students from schools such as kinesiology, education, public policy, natural resources, literature, engineering, public health, and social work are all involved. There is even faculty representation from the school of music, theatre, and dance as well as the school of art and design.
SOCIAL IMPACT CHALLENGE ALSO TO BE HOUSED UNDER THE CSI
Vasquez, who is serving in an advisory role, first realized the value of cross-sector collaboration while competing in Ross’s Social Impact Challenge. Vazquez’s project focused on bringing together Detroit’s farmer’s markets into one new brand called Detroit Community Market.
“When you have a project like that, the quality of the final product is enhanced with multiple perspectives,” explains Vasquez. “Some problems are too complex for business to solve alone. We worked with students from public policy, law, and architecture to create the Detroit Community Market.”
The Social Impact Challenge is probably the largest piece to the center and is the epitome of what the center sets out to do—solve real world social problems in Detroit with a cross-disciplinary approach. Each year, student teams form to address and tackle a real-life social issue in Detroit. The teams are presented with a challenge statement, investigate the social issues, and present to a panel of judges.
STEPPING OUT OF THE GRADUATE SILO
Noelle Polaski is a public policy student set to graduate this year. Not only is she a vice president on the center’s student advisory board, she was a member of last year’s winning team at the Social Impact Challenge, which was focused on improving transportation needs and access for all Detroit neighborhoods.
“Sometimes it’s easy to work in silos of your own school and think about things from just the social work perspective or policy perspective or business perspective,” Polaski explains. “The Center gives real life experiences working with people from different expertise that help you grow as a person and work with different leadership styles.”
Polaski’s team was made up of a social work student, and urban planning student, and an MBA. This year’s winning team was comprised of two natural resources students, one urban planning student, and a dual MBA and school of education student. The challenge was to redevelop the Fisher Body Plant 21 in Detroit’s North End.