One MBA founded a socially responsible real estate firm. One launched a waste processing company that cuts trash volume and creates a valuable end product. Another created an e-commerce community that increases access to innovative women’s health products.
Since its inception four years ago, the Sands Fellowship has helped these and a handful of other students in the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management to entrepreneurial efforts aimed at making lasting local change.
The $5,000 fellowships are awarded each year to Carlson students whose projects are in line with Bill and Susan Sands’s vision of social ventures as vital to a healthy Minneapolis-St. Paul — or any — community.
STRONG TREND TOWARD EFFECTING SOCIAL CHANGE
The Sands Fellowship is part of a growing trend in MBA education, says John Stavig, director of Carlson’s Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship: a desire not just to make money, but to make a difference, too.
“I’ve been here more than ten years and one of the strongest trends we’ve seen in education, and specifically within entrepreneurship, is the students’ very strong desire to make an impact,” says Stavig, who works with Susan and Bill Sands as well as the Sands fellows. “If they can get connected within the community and get support, it becomes something that’s very mission-driven for them, and a lot of them can put their education to great use.
“Just like within entrepreneurship, if you’ve got good people focused on a problem, they can find a meaningful solution.”
MEANINGFUL SOLUTIONS TO AN ARRAY OF PROBLEMS
Carlson’s Sands fellows have focused on a wide variety of problems. Sometimes, as in the case of recently graduated MBA Joe Braman, a big problem was that he didn’t fully understand the problem when he set out to tackle it.
Braman used the fellowship to launch Braman Brothers Real Estate, LLP, a real estate sales and investment firm born out of his desire to create access to more affordable housing in the Twin Cities. With his brother Charlie, Braman, 29, began by going into low-income communities and talking with residents about their needs.
What he found was that his project’s first iteration would need to undergo a serious reevaluation. “I really learned that we needed to be able to provide greater access to affordable housing in a way that actually met the needs of the community,” Braman says, “which meant that the community needed units that served multigenerational families, which is something that is lacking right now, and something that serves single individuals. And we needed to do it in a way that was culturally competent.”
TRYING NOT TO BE ‘A SHOW THAT’S BEEN SEEN BEFORE’
Braman discovered a need to emphasize customer interviews that would yield on-the-ground information that couldn’t be drawn from data. He says the Sands Fellowship was crucial to the evolution of his company into an entity that can translate that information into action and positive change.
“To be frank, my brother and I are just two white guys going into very diverse communities, which is a show that’s been seen before. And we really didn’t want to be that — and at the end of the day the economics of that model really doesn’t work.” After a year of “pivots and iterations,” the Braman brothers landed on their current model, partnering with Coldwell Banker and employing a team of Realtors, then investing profits from home sales into developing “a portfolio of safe, affordable, and ethically managed housing.”
“The fellowship itself,” Joe Braman says, “really drives into you not just the importance but the power of social entrepreneurship. When you talk to Bill and Susan and you get introduced to the social entrepreneurship network in the Twin Cities, you really see the amount of change that can be made, by businesses that simply want to make some sort of change in some sort of way in this area.
“It’s such a vibrant community and I don’t think we would have been thrust into that community in the same way had we not been introduced to Bill and Susan and been part of that fellowship community.”