The 2014 version of the annual Acara Challenge was held Feb 21, 2014 at the lovely McNamara Alumni Center on the East Bank campus. This has been a brutal winter in Minnesota, the coldest in more than 30 years and one of the coldest on record. Of course, Feb 21 was one of the worst weather days of the winter, with 8-10 inches of snow, on top of ice, and cold weather. But we are a hardy bunch in Minnesota and the event went off on schedule. The Challenge was a little different this year. There was an International and a Domestic division, and only teams from the Universityof Minnesota participated. However, the competition was open to any UMN student and we had 11 great teams presenting, seven in the International Division and four in the Domestic Division.
The results of the Challenge, along with the plans and presentations of the teams, are here and listed below. The teams are now enjoying Spring Break. The teams are continuing to work and make progress. Several are planning to go to India, Uganda and Haiti for continued work this summer, as are some of the local teams. Stay tuned for updates.
The January-term course, CE5572/PA5290/ARCH 5550, is for students who want to bring their existing idea for a for profit or nonprofit social venture to fruition or scale. The 2-credit course occurred January 13-17, 2014, on the St. Paul campus. It’s an intensive but fun one week. Students get a chance to focus on their project, without other distractions. There were 14 students this January and most of them will be presenting in the February 21, 2014 Acara Challenge. The idea summaries are below
Help Desk makes beautiful furniture using sustainably-sourced East African hard woods and the profits go to making classroom improvements in under-equipped Ugandan schools.
Sabujawalla addresses the waste issue in India by employing waste pickers to collect waste from households, sort it, and then sell plastics and organic material to scrap dealers and recycling plants.
Skivvies will sell underwear domestically; for every pair sold, a pair will be donated to a young girl in Haiti. This underwear will be one way to help girls discretely manage their periods and therefore allow girls to regularly attend school.
SunFarms will establish small centers in rural communities to purchase and dry fruits and vegetables close to where they are produced, thereby decreasing food spoilage and increase farmer profits in rural India.
Tech-share will teach rural Ugandan students how to use computers through a mobile computer laboratory with the help of computer engineering students and staff from Mbarara University in western Uganda.
Women for Water
Women for Water recruits women from low-income families in Bangalore, India to go to their friends, families, and neighbors to give educational presentations and promote and sell water treatment technologies.
CollegeCredit plans to deliver well-designed, youthful, engaging online financial literacy courses and proprietary tools through partnerships with colleges and universities. This puts information directly into students’ hands, encouraging them to make decisions while still in college that will improve their financial situations.
Yellow Mellow’s product will change the chemical environment of the toilet so that consumers can forego flushing often.
PowerToGo provides a mobile phone charging solution through a network of portable power sources to keep busy customers conveniently connected to our modern world.
Co-Lab is a co-working space at Carlson for UMN students.
After spending the last year in rural India building the MyRain business he co-founded, Steele Lorenz (BS ’10), and his partner Paula Uniacke, were ready for some comfort snack food. So when I asked him if he wanted anything from the US before I left, he gave me a list that included items like Little Debby cookies and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I learned on the trip over to India that Little Debbie cookies caused TSA more problems than anything else I have ever carried onto an airplane. They seem to be impenetrable to x-rays. But the job Steele has done starting MyRain the past year deserves a whole shipping container of cookies.
One year ago this week, I picked up Steele at the airport in Bangalore, his first time in India. He and his co-founder, Sri Latha Ganti (MS ’11), had been working on the MyRain plan for the past two years since the Acara Challenge, identifying partners, angel investors and a CFO and refining the business plan. In spring 2012, Steele decided he was ready to launch, quit his consulting job in Minnesota where he had been for two years since graduating with a business degree from Carlson, and moved to Madurai in the extreme south of India.
Before moving to Madurai, MyRain aimed to sell drip irrigation to farmers. Drip irrigation was being manufactured in India but still many farmers didn’t have access to it due to the rural supply chain gap for farm technologies. And even though the team had piloted the venture idea in Summer 2011, the plan was still full of untested assumptions. Upon moving to India and after early growing pains, MyRain has begun to realize their vision. Steele has established a strong sales team and a network of dealers and retailers. They are now selling drip irrigation and other innovative farm technologies, such as seeders, weeders, sprinklers, post-harvest processing devices and sugar cane thrashers, that can enhance farmers’ livelihoods while improving environmental conditions.
Steele’s tale of his first year is one that defines entrepreneurship. Many months of hard work, a crash course in doing business in India, and a great deal of frustration. For Steele, being in a developing country half-way around the world, not speaking the local language, and being far away from his US support network, made these challenges all the more acute. The hard work and perseverance have paid off, though, with a few big breaks. Steele’s first break came when, after a few unsuccessful hires, he found a great operations manager in Manikandan. Having a local manager on board, and one with sales and marketing experience working in a Western business environment, was a huge step and allowed MyRain to make great strides in defining its value statement and market approach. The second was in finding a good manufacturing partner in KSNM, again after some earlier unsuccessful attempts at partnering with other companies.
Since February MyRain’s progress and growth have been explosive! Here are a couple of highlights from 2013 so far:
- MyRain has delivered more than 2 tons of drip irrigation laterals this year and is paced to exceed 1 ton in sales per month by December 2013.
- Since the beginning of the 2013, MyRain has had strong sales growth – 20% to 30% increases per month, every month.
- To continue the pace of their rapid expansion and take advantage of strong demand in the fourth quarter of 2013, MyRain is looking to hire 2-3 new sales people this summer, which will double the size of the team in Madurai.
I saw enough ventures grow in my time working during the Indian globalization craze last decade to recognize the characteristics of the hyper-growth ones. MyRain has all those characteristics. The most important are a smart, passionate team, and a dynamic, tireless leader in Steele.
So what is the relevance of all this to Acara, IonE, the University of Minnesota, and the State of Minnesota? Why should we care about small-plot farmers in India? There are several ways to answer that:
- Acara’s impact as a UMN environmental entrepreneurship program comes not only through teaching students, but also through the passionate venture teams like MyRain that go on to make a positive global impact by launching real ventures. We can’t wait to see what they achieve in the next year!
- IonE is not just about research and outreach, but also about developing real solutions to problems like environmental change, which can have huge implications for small farmers. We must also use our skills and resources to help farmers in the US and globally manage and adapt to changing climate conditions. MyRain is working to ensure products and knowledge are available to farmers to enhance resource efficiency, improve crop yields, and therefore livelihoods.
- Kate Brauman, IonE Fellow, recently led a study evaluating how crop water productivity — the amount of crop produced per drop of water used — varies across the globe. India is highly water inefficient per unit of crop grown. Drip irrigation is one way to help improve efficiency of agricultural inputs and thus sustainability of farming practices. But with many more farms in the State of Tamil Nadu alone than in all of the US (over 8 million vs. 2.2 million) many farmers don’t have access to products. MyRain is working on improving the distribution system. Although Steele and his team can’t serve all those farmers, every big change starts from an idea and a passionate group of skilled individuals.
- It’s part of the university’s land grant mission of research, education and outreach to support agriculture. This mission has served MN farmers well, along with farmers around the world. The world is so interconnected now. MN interests are global, and events in other countries can impact us in many ways.
- In addition to MyRain’s product sales in India, they are also working as consultants with Minnesota businesses to examine market entry for innovative technologies in rural India. While MyRain’s current operations are in India, there are scale mechanisms that can happen at its MN office, along with jobs in the US that can come as MyRain grows.
So there are plenty of big picture reasons for doing this. Steele and Sri are both recent graduates of Minnesota. Our job here at the university is to develop new leaders for the world.
No, Steele has nothing to be ashamed of.
We had a great Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship course at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. The complete blog entry describing this is on the Eye on Earth blog, here.
The Acara Challenge was held February 8 at CoCo Minneapolis, a great place for our student entrepreneurs to hang out for a day. The results are on this page. Congratulations to all the teams, they were terrific!
At Acara, our mission is to influence the lives of others all around the globe through the support of students with world-changing ideas. On February 8th, we were lucky to work with ten talented groups of students who are ready to do just that. Our 2012-2013 Acara Challenge Finals were hosted on February 8 at CoCo Minneapolis in the Historic Grain Exchange, and were met with excitement and huge success.
On the morning of the event, we welcomed guest judges and students to the event; all enthusiastic to share their ideas and improve upon their work. Each group of students gave a fifteen-minute presentation about their business venture and participated in fifteen minutes of critique and dialogue with the judges and other visitors. These presentations were broadcast live on the website, which allowed the speakers to interact with listeners from halfway around the world. It was a very dynamic experience that engaged people with many different experience levels.
Over lunch, judges took the time to review the ventures and their viability, and rank the groups into gold, silver, bronze, or honorable mention categories. After the judges made their final decisions, each group had the opportunity to talk with Fred Rose and Julian Marshall to improve their business plans.
However, the most exiting part of the day was the open house in the evening. Over one hundred guests were met with food and fun, each bringing their own experience with entrepreneurship and social ventures. The visitors had the opportunity to speak to students and look at their posters, as well as network with other individuals and learn more about the Acara program. We also had visits from past Acara successes including Eat for Equity, Perk Health, myRain, and no thro, as well as the newer ventures HSD Sanitation, Feed our Roots, and University-Dinkytown Grocery Store. These participants were excited to pass the torch onto the new generation of Acara graduates that are prepared to make a difference in today’s world.
Each group- past and present- then gave a two-minute pitch to the Acara community about their business, its plans, and its triumphs. The guests were able to experience CoCo’s unusual atmosphere by enjoying beanbag chairs, exercise balls, and ample standing room on different levels of the space. It is difficult to imagine such a space without witnessing it first-hand, but it seemed to receive a warm welcome from our visitors.
The beautiful atrium of the Historic Grain Exchange shook with applause from our crowd of guests following each presentation. It seems as though every person in the room really understood that we were onto something great. We were very thankful to find support from so many community members, and were enthralled to see them having just as much fun as we were. We hope our work can inspire them just as much as their work and help inspires us!
It was excellent to see such a broad range of ideas represented from a diverse group of students. Although this marks the end of another great Acara season, we are now ready to see our past partners continue to thrive and watch our new winners grow and find success.
Written by Dominique Boczek