The DO School brings students together to help scale New York City’s startup support capabilities.

By Maureen Kline, Director of public affairs and sustainability, Pirelli Tire North America. on September 1, 2016 for Inc.com.

The city of New York has a challenge. It wants to offer fertile ground for local entrepreneurs, particularly in the poorer parts of the city, to start businesses and help them grow, empowering the incubator infrastructure to work as effectively as possible.

 

Enter the DO School, a global institution that, for select programs, borrows students passionate about social change from accredited colleges and offers them experiential learning through doing, challenging them to solve real-world, pressing problems in sustainable ways.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation tasked a team of 20 DO School students from 10 different colleges in the New York area (Ron’s note: including Fordham)¬†with this specific challenge: “Create and test a new program or service that, by leveraging a shared resource model, will enable entrepreneur-supporting institutions to sustain and expand access to entrepreneurial opportunities across New York City and in marginalized communities.”

The problem was that many small, community-based entrepreneurship support organizations, or ESOs, existing in New York City lacked resources, networks, and visibility. They wanted to enhance their ability to provide new entrepreneurs with basic assistance and infrastructure.

The students approached the challenge by applying the DO School’s innovation method, which they call “underlying magic.” The 4 steps in the method go like this:

1. Dream: enable participants to open up and share new perspectives to come up with genuinely novel ideas;

2. Focus: use a variety of tools from observation and prototyping, to stakeholder mapping and role playing to fine-tune participants’ proposals;

3. Plan: transition between idea and implementation, introducing essential management skills; and

4. Do: support the implementation of the idea and measure its impact, ensuring at the same time quality and sustainability.

The students learned that incubators in New York have trouble finding and retaining networks of industry experts, speakers and mentors, that they are short on staff for outreach and marketing, and that they struggle to offer opportunities in poorer areas of the city.

Brainstorming exercises, which included engaging 30 experts over the course of nearly 4 months, led the students to focus on sharing resources as a solution to the problem. They nicknamed their solution KIN, or Kickoff Innovation in New York, proposing an event series and a video competition.

The main goal of the event series would be to bring together corporate resources, including speakers and mentors, and incubators, simply to make it easier for them all to meet each other. The students found that “corporations have shown increasing interest in working with startups, but seemingly don’t yet know how and where to start,” and that “on the flip side, our survey showed 93.8% of ESOs see corporate outreach as a clear opportunity for collaboration.” They decided that by holding events in corporate innovation spaces, they could link incubators with corporate innovation officers, students and other networks, unleashing networking opportunities in order to connect challenges with solutions, ideas with practical implementation. The events would focus on mentorship and would allow each host to highlight their brand and mission, and would offer a mix of fun and professional activities designed for relationship building. Corporate innovators could hold “reverse pitch” nights where they pitch problems they want startups to solve.

Holding events would solve a financial problem as well: ESOs spend far too much time developing their networks and building relationships; at events this could be done much more quickly. ESOs’ biggest source of revenue are members, so the incubators need to increase the exposure of startups and, generally, their visibility, in order to bring in mentors, sponsors, investors, and ultimately new members.

The second part of the KIN solution focused more specifically on increasing exposure of startups, in order to help launch them and in order to help create fertile ground for more. The DO School students decided to create “NYC Startup Stories,” a video competition for students that highlights enterprises successfully launched by incubators in the area. The videos would eventually form a history, a chronicle of how the New York City startup community develops over time.

The students presenting the KIN solution to the New York City government, at the end of their DO School course, said they felt it was crucial to have the two complementary components of events and a video competition. “By strengthening the ecosystem from within (with the event series) AND promoting the ecosystem externally,” they read from their pre-written notes, “we’re left with a symbiotic cycle of continual and self-sustaining growth.”

City government representatives received the KIN solution with enthusiasm and said they were ready to implement it. From the city’s point of view, the process of presenting a challenge and being offered an in-depth solution by a group of enthusiastic, creative students seemed like a big win.

What if this were how our society approached every challenge?

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