Columbia MBA candidates Ryan Greene and Sara Smoler are proving that despite the virtual nature of their graduate experience, students can still inspire and drive change — and all in a matter of a few hours.
Greene, a former tech executive and museum board member, and Smoler, a former business development manager and Forbes 30-under-30 marketing expert, met this fall in their second-year Philanthropy in Emerging Markets class when their professor gave them a call to action: Do something good with $10 in New York City. Each student in the 36-person class was transferred the money from the Clark Foundation and instructed to spend it in a way that positively impacted the city before the next class.
Feeling inspired, Greene posed a challenge to Smoler: He wanted to pool students’ money and see how much they could raise for those in need. The pair decided to launch a 24-hour campaign, Rapid Fire Raffle, which encouraged students to match Greene and Smoler’s initial $10 donation to help New York City’s homeless population.
The pair not only raised $500 for charity, but sparked a larger, pop-up philanthropy movement, inspiring students to press for local change across the Columbia campus and beyond.
HOMELESSNESS: A GROWING CONCERN IN NEW YORK & BEYOND
Since the pandemic, many homeless New Yorkers are hesitant to stay in the city-run shelters due to the rampant virus, creating an anecdotal rise in people living on the streets.
“In the past few months, we’ve seen the city really change, especially in regard to the amount of people suffering from homelessness,” Greene tells Poets&Quants.
Inspired to help contribute to a bootstrap charity working directly with the homeless, they chose to partner with Knock Knock Give a Sock, an organization that does two things: Humanizes the homeless and provides them with fresh socks. They encourage companies and businesses to host sock drives, after which they’re offered an opportunity to host a “Meet Your Neighbors” dinner in hopes of fostering community and breaking the stigma of homelessness.
“We wanted to donate to a nonprofit that was applying a scalpel to the New York city homelessness space. We chose to give the proceeds to Knock Knock Give a Sock, as they had identified that the least frequently donated clothing article, yet the most important, is socks,” Greene says.
24 HOURS OF FUNDRAISING
After reaching out to those in their network, Greene and Smoler received the ultimate raffle prize to incentivize sales: a doors-off helicopter tour for two. Since they were targeting students, they decided that the best course of action would be to create a strategic, low-hanging fruit pricing structure to have the most people donate in the shortest time frame.
“We sold one ticket for $2 and six for $10. Within 12 hours, we had over 50 people donate, most of which opted in for the upsell, which met our initial goal of matching our donation,” Smoler says.
Inspired by the quick turnaround and positive response from Rapid Fire Raffle, Greene and Smoler decided to take their hyper-targeted model of creating local, meaningful impact to other B-school students in a movement called MBActions. Designed to challenge students to raise and donate to a nonprofit of their choosing, MBActions encourages people to ditch the PowerPoints, Excel Sheets, and business plans and instead accelerate a concept in a few days’ time.
“Coming from such a large company, I was impressed at how quickly we were able to put an idea to action without having to deal with internal politics or red tape,” says Smoler, who previously worked for one of the world’s premier cosmetics companies. “I want to continue with our pop-up philanthropy model and see how many other organizations or groups we could inspire to plug and play into this role.”
Their goal goes beyond the Columbia campus.
“Our long-term hope,” Smoler says, “is that eventually we can crown a winner of the business school ecosystem for non-profit activism across major business school networks.”
INSPIRING CHANGE IN A VIRTUAL WORLD
Until this pop-up philanthropy project, both Greene and Smoler questioned their intentions of getting an MBA since it’s been turned online.
“Covid has been this experience of shared trauma in many respects; it’s absolutely flipped this MBA experience on its head,” Greene says. “But it’s a really cool experience to watch 80 people who have shared something together, quite dramatically, look out for each other in a capacity that may not have happened in a different environment.”
Smoler echoes Greene’s thoughts. “I think there’s something magical about how, despite having to build community over Zoom, people are taking the time to build meaningful relationships, network, and still drink that Columbia Kool-Aid, which I was personally very worried would be different now that things were virtual,” she says.
Despite the challenges of navigating an online learning environment, Smoler and Greene remain rooted in their decision to get their MBA.
“I think being able to move quickly to drive action while building great relationships is special, especially despite the virtual context,” Smoler says. “This experience has been a humbling one due to being in business school during a really tough time for the world, but being able to learn with such a diverse group of people under these circumstances has been valuable.
“I think it’s something that I’ll carry with me regardless of where I ended up after school.”