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Transplant Tales: An Experience in India

December 2, 2014bell0384FeaturedComments Off on Transplant Tales: An Experience in India

Taps vs. Faucets

Twiddling thumbs at government offices vs. systems that work 

Mind-numbing traffic vs. smooth highways

A thousand images per second vs. tranquility

India presents many paradoxes. And yet, why do some people take the giant leap, and move continents, not just to visit, but to live and work? That’s exactly what Gareth Westler did. Gareth’s an Acara International Civil Engineering graduate student at the University of Minnesota. For the past nine months, Gareth has worked with Technology Informatics Design Endeavour (TIDE), an organization that promotes sustainable development through technological interventions. At TIDE, Gareth’s project involves analyzing demand for dried food products. He performs market research, works on mechanics of setting up food drying centers and employing self-help groups to manage them, and identifying potential clients for dried produce.

Here’s Gareth giving a “horse’s mouth” account of his time in India:

What brought you to Bangalore and to TIDE? In last year’s Fall semester Acara class, we conceptualized a project to establish food drying centers in rural villages. When Acara Assistant Director Brian Bell visited Bangalore in January 2014, he met with TIDE and discovered their interest in setting up food drying centers as well. Since we had an alignment in interests and goals, Acara helped set up a fellowship for me at TIDE.

IMG_6740Examples of the products currently produced at TIDE’s Women’s Technology Park (WTP) in Aralaguppe, Karnataka.

You were coming to a country completely different from your own. What were the first days like? The sights, sounds, experiences… My first impression about Bangalore was that it wasn’t that different from cities in the US, or large cities that I’ve visited in other countries. I was staying in a hotel in the initial days, and hotel rooms across the world are perhaps characterized by their homogeneity. The one major difference from other cities, is, and remains, traffic. On my first full day in the city, I got a ride from the hotel to the office riding pillion on a scooter, and it was quite a hair-raising experience.

What were your initial experiences with regard to settling into a new work culture? I spent the first month doing a lot of reading, catching up on past projects and preparing proposals for new projects related to my area of interest. This was a good easing-in, as I didn’t have to jump headfirst into the nitty-gritties of the work. I spent a lot of time in the office just absorbing things, which was good for me.

How did your colleagues help? They were very nice! I am not very outgoing as a person, but they took it upon themselves to make me comfortable and bring me up to speed. They were also immensely helpful when I was trying to find an apartment. They helped me get in touch with real estate agents, accompanied me when I looked at apartments, and helped me settle on a good place. In terms of the project, I didn’t really know where to look for answers; for example, with regard to fresh produce prices, there wasn’t a reliable source in Minneapolis. Here, I asked my colleague, and they immediately referred me to some online sources.

IMG_6769Poornima, in charge of all activities at the WTP including the food-drying project, explains the technical aspects of the biomass dryer.

You would have heard things about India through different channels before you came here. What experiences made you think, “What I’ve heard is so true?” Well, as I said before, everything that I’d heard about the traffic was true! The traffic scenario pretty much fit my expectations of India.

What myths were shattered? I was surprised at the temperate weather in Bangalore (Writer’s note: the city, by virtue of being 900 m above sea level, is known for year-round pleasant weather). When I first got here, it was summer, and the temperature did go up to 100 F a couple of times, but it really didn’t feel that hot. People always say, “Bangalore has nice weather as compared to other Indian cities.” I was expecting it to be a lot warmer and more humid, and I was pleasantly surprised. I also thought that there would be more cows on the streets. There are, of course, pockets of Bangalore where you are likely to see cows, but it is not as widespread as we think. We also heard that there would be lots of monkeys, which would trouble us, and snatch things. But until I travelled with the May-June 2014 Summer Institute class to different parts of the city, I hadn’t had a monkey sighting.

IMG_7850A local woman and employee at the WTP looks on as the biomass dryer heats up.

What are the frustrations of being in a different socio-cultural or socio-political system? Even though the environment at TIDE is congenial, there are larger systemic changes to deal with. Everything takes much longer than it does in the US. When I first started working at TIDE, we were in the process of applying for the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) ID, which would enable us to sell our products in stores. We only got the ID about two months ago, after a good six months of waiting. We are still waiting on a couple of other ID numbers, to be able to sell commercially. Everything takes forever! We also thought that we would be able to roll out two phases of our project by June, as we had them approved. However, we haven’t been able to start anything yet. It isn’t as if there is specific information available on why the delays happen – it is all up in the ether. It is about waiting to line up meetings with people, and then waiting on them to blink – it can be messy.

You’ve been here nine months. What have been the most rewarding experiences or successes, both professionally and personally? One milestone that I am proud of: before I got here, I was keen on installing and testing a solar dryer, and seeing if it made any sense to use one. When I broached the subject to TIDE, they were hesitant. They had looked at solar dryers before, and, for whatever, reason, had determined that they would not work for related projects. However, I convinced them to get one solar dryer to experiment with (Writer’s note: I spoke to Gareth’s supervisor Poornima who said he actually donated a solar dryer to the organization.) We’ve now decided to use solar dryers to dry small batches of leafy greens, in all drying centers that TIDE plans to set up. I feel good that an idea that I suggested is being implemented, and the impact is visible. Personally, I’ve really taken a closer look at how I spend my time. Back in the US, thanks to lightning-fast Internet connectivity, I used to spend a lot of time on browsing, which I can’t do here. I’ve developed a clear perspective on options to spend time, based on what’s available.

IMG_8082Kavitha, the local manager at the WTP, demonstrating the sliding drying racks of the WTP’s new solar dryer.

What is your typical day like? You live in a fairly traditional neighborhood – what is it like being a non-Indian in this part of Bangalore, doing what you do everyday? After speaking with people who live in other parts of Bangalore that might be more cosmopolitan, I feel like I might have a slightly different experience. This is a traditional neighbourhood (Writer’s note: Gareth lives in a highly walkable neighbourhood called Malleshwaram, in Northwest Bangalore. His workplace is in this neighbourhood as well, and he walks to his office.), and there’s not much by way of entertainment options. I don’t really mind it though – I read a lot, play the guitar, and play some video games. I principally don’t like this neighbourhood because it takes a long time to get to the city center I sometimes feel cut off from the rest of Bangalore, but it is not too bad.

Do you get stared at while walking down the street? Not at all! Funnily enough, when I am with other non-Indians, we get stared at, but never when I am by myself.


Bangalore seems to have two sides: in some areas you can see why it was named “the Garden City…”


…and in other areas it looks a lot more like what I expected India to be like.

What do you do for fun, aside from playing the guitar and reading? I’ve done a fair bit of travelling within the country and outside. I went to Mysore and Coorg (places in Karnataka, the same state that Bangalore is in) with the Summer Institute 2014. I’ve also been to Madurai, Kodaikanal, Trichy (places in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu), and Goa (small Indian state on the Western coast of India, famed for its beaches.) I’ve also been to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia. I am planning on going to Chennai (the capital city of Tamil Nadu), Kerala (another neighbouring Southern state) and the Maldives. I’ve usually travelled by bus, and I don’t have an issue with it. The buses are not on time, but they are relatively safe. I also travelled by train for the first time in India recently. I might not like it as much as the bus, but it isn’t too much of a problem. Most trains I’ve taken in other countries allocate a separate compartment, while here, you share your space with other people. Safety is mostly not an issue.

What would you have to say to students to might come to India for fellowships or the May term class? What should they expect/not expect? How should they manage their expectations? It is good to have a general idea of what one wants to accomplish. That said, be prepared to go with the flow – specific plans vanish. The most significant learning experience is observing how things work – it is completely different from what you think you know. Just be aware of the differences, and you should be fine.


The rural villages looked a lot like what I expected from traveling in other developing countries.

How does someone from a different culture get through the day-to-day of living in India? The biggest issue is not having a lot of contact with Indians who’ve lived outside India. They would comprehend the frustration brought on by comparison. Someone who understands that if you are angry about something, it is justified – things are just different somewhere else. The ones who haven’t lived anywhere else will tell you, “Grow up, this is India.” So, greater contact with people who have a diverse worldview would help.

How would things be different (professionally/personally) if you hadn’t had this experience in India? I do want to work in international development, and my previous experience has been with Engineers without Borders in Guatemala. I feel like this experience has given me a good perspective on how things work in-country, from the inside out. Sitting in the US, we get frustrated and don’t understand why nonprofits can take a long time to make things happen sometimes. However, working with TIDE has opened my eyes to the challenges – it is not that development organizations are lazy. Things don’t happen for the strangest of reasons – maybe the elections or on, or it is a festival day and you can’t score a meeting with someone. This stint has given me a sense of the other side, as compared to what I am used to. I hope that this experience makes me marketable from an international development context!

From your perspective as an American – how are Indians different from you? Indians are not afraid to share their views – whether good or bad. That is interesting. In my experience, Indians seem more set in their ways than people of other nationalities that I’ve encountered. But since my professional focus is on trying to change consumer behaviour, maybe this is a “sample bias” observation!


Certain areas of Bangalore had nicer and more spread-out houses than I would have imagined.

What about younger Indians? There’s a generation gap, and we are at the cusp of great change…. I think that there are two different groups –more traditional young people, and the counter-culture and Western influence-driven group. The counter culture seems very similar to what I am used to. The traditional Indians are a younger version of their parents, and it seems like there might not be much of a change in mindset and behaviour.

What about young Indian entrepreneurs?  This is a population that I haven’t paid attention to before – there do seem to be a lot of them in Bangalore! They thrive on chaos in general, which is why Bangalore works well for them.

How does India compare to other developing countries that you’ve visited or lived in? As I said, I worked in Guatemala while I was with Engineers Without Borders. The major difference between the two countries is that in India, there is stark disparity between the haves and have-nots. We are sitting in this fancy mall, while just about a hundred miles outside the city, people work for daily wages as low as Rs. 150-200 (about $3). I didn’t witness such significant contrasts in Guatemala. 

Would you recommend this experience to others? Definitely! It is different – even if you don’t have an international professional focus, living in an environment like this gives you valuable perspective on what is “normal.”

If you had an opportunity to come back to work here again, would you do it? Not for a little while. Bangalore attracts a certain kind of person, but it is too chaotic for me. I need structure. It is a big city, and I don’t like larger cities that much. I might come back to visit, but not live here long-term.

If you had another nine months in Bangalore, what else would you do – professionally and personally? I didn’t travel too much in the first few months, which I would want to do. Also, it has only been in the last couple of months that I’ve visited different parts of the city and met people. I might do more of that.

Summary for 2013/14 Academic Year and What’s Planned

October 9, 2014fred.roseAcara News Desk, FeaturedComments Off on Summary for 2013/14 Academic Year and What’s Planned
Alex, Jamie and Shaine sharing their adventures from India at the Open House.

Alex, Jamie and Shaine sharing their adventures from India at the Open House.

We had another exciting year for the academic year 2013/14. We worked with many students, budding entrepreneurs and ventures. We want to take a moment to update all our friends and supporters.


Last spring, Acara was awarded  the C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives (III Award) from the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance. This award recognizes faculty and staff for their contributions to further the internationalization of the University of Minnesota. We are proud of that recognition from the University.


The University of Minnesota has been developing a new strategic plan. This plan will bring more university focus on Grand Challenges. Several of us participated in this process and it’s exciting to see this new focus! Acara is definitely aligned with this strategy and we look forward to participating.


Acara considers both an education and impact side of our mission to help students understand, design and develop solutions to grand challenges. Below are updates from both of those missions.


We are involved in teaching a variety of courses and workshops. In the 2013/14 academic year, we offered the following courses, workshops and competitions. Our formal UMN courses are offered through other colleges as IonE isn’t an academic center (which means IonE doesn’t have faculty per se or courses).




  • CSE (College of Science and Engineering) 1905 – Fall 2013, 10^9 Challenge. This course, taught by Julian Marshall, is a one-credit introductory course on grand challenge problem solving.
  • CE (Civil Engineering) 5571 – Fall 2013. Acara Global Venture Design. Taught by Julian Marshall, Brian Bell, Toby Nord and Fred Rose.
  • CE5572 – January 2014, Social Venture Launchpad, for students with an idea for a venture. Taught by Fred Rose
  • CFANS (College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences)  3480/5480 – Spring 2014. A new class, Social Entrepreneurship in Uganda, in collaboration with Makerere University. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
  • CE 5570 – May term, 2014. Discovery India. A 3 week study abroad program to Bangalore, India (which includes the Summer Institute). Taught by Brian Bell, Julian Marshall and Fred Rose.

We had 5 students from the Fall 2013 5571 course spend from 3-9 months in India on longer term internships. Here is a summary from three doing a waste-related internship. We also had 3 students from the CFANS 3480 course spend a month in Uganda with the Makerere students.




  • Dar es Salaam, Tanzania –  August 2013. Part of USAID-sponsored RESPOND program. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
  • Stanford – November 2013. Part of the US-Mexico Forum for Understanding, Cooperation and Solidarity (Fred is an advisor to this organization). Taught by Fred Rose.
  • University of Kinshasa, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo – Feb 2014. Part of USAID-sponsored RESPOND program. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
  • Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda – Feb 2014. Collaboration with CFANS 3480 course and RESPOND. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
  • Acara Spring Workshops – March, April 2014. Workshops for local social entrepreneurs. Taught by Brian Bell and Fred Rose.
  • ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), Mexico City – April 2014. Part of the US-Mexico Forum. Taught by Fred Rose.





Student Metrics:


These metrics are quantitative measures of students taught by Acara “staff” (see above). These are UMN courses, not-for-credit workshops and 3-5 day workshops taught in India or Africa. If students take multiple courses, they are counted just once. Students can change categories over the course of a year, these charts capture where they start. We haven’t broken out students that progress from not having a venture idea to having one and working on it. Years are academic years. So 2013 refers to the 2013/4 academic year and ended June 30, 2014.


The first chart of metrics breaks students out by segment, over academic year. We have the following student segments (in the case below, student refers to University Student):
  • Noah (Idealistic Newbie). Full time Student, no idea for a venture.
  • Maya (World Changer): Full time student, has an idea for a venture.
  • Ramesh (Eager Entrepreneur): Not a student, has an idea for a venture.
  • Barbara (Encore Artist): Not a student, doesn’t have an idea for a venture.
There was a drop in the past year, primarily because of the timing of a large class of 60 students at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. That class was too large and this past academic year, we did a smaller, more focused class.




While the Education part of Acara is well structured around courses and workshops, the Impact side is more like the startup venture ecosystem in which it operates, namely ever-changing and dynamic. Our impact mission is fairly simple, help social/environmental entrepreneurs move their idea/venture to a point where they can engage in the startup ecosystem (which primarily means seeking funding).


Venture Ideas:


The ventures we work with come from several sources:
  • Students from our courses (this includes UMN students and students in India and Uganda)
  • Students in the competitions (Acara Challenge and Dow SISCA)
  • Entrepreneurs that participate in our monthly Impact Reviews.
Our level of involvement varies of course, and is highest for students coming from our UMN classes and the Acara Challenge. Involvement means Venture Fellowships (up to $5K), staff time and mentoring.


Status of student Ventures is an ever changing list. This link has a short status of ventures from past Acara Challenges.


The next metric chart looks at venture ideas, prototypes and successful ventures. An idea is something developed or refined over the course. A prototype is time spent in the field doing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) or something close to it. A successful venture is something we rate a 10 or higher on the 15 point scale we have to measure business maturity. Details of this will be covered in a future blog. This maturity means that it takes a while from conception to that point. So numbers from years 2012 and 2013 will change.
The next chart is a portfolio look of student ventures, measured against social impact maturity and business maturity. The ideal venture would proceed along a diagonal up to the right, becoming more mature and independent as time goes on. All the ventures from all sources are plotted on this chart.


Impact Venture Reviews:


We do Impact Reviews monthly (during the academic calendar) which are informal reviews by our Acara At Large Advisory panel of social ventures. These are one hour sessions to help the entrepreneur with key strategic questions. These ventures may be from our students or from anyone in the community. Ventures reviewed the past year included:
  • MyRain – Steele Lorenz. Was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
  • be Waste Wise – Katrina Mitchell. Katrina has started another venture, Picture Perfect, which was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
  • Bogo Brush – Heather McDougall
  • Joy of the People – Ted Kroeten
  • Andamio Games – Kyle Nelson
  • Mighty Axe Hops – Brian Krohn and Eric Sannerud. Was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
  • Jeff Ochs review of benefit corporations and social venture structure/definition
  • Skivvies – Kelsey Fecho
  • BDW Technologies – Adam Woodruff. Was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
  • College Credit – Ify Onyiah
New for 2014/15 Academic Year


We are planning essentially the same set of courses and competitions for this current academic year.  The new things we are doing are more on the Impact side of the mission.
  • This fall we are doing a pilot of something we call Grand Challenge Impact Studio. Essentially this is just a facilitated workshop with students working on Grand Challenge ideas. Since we started this late we are really just working with Acara students and students from the Food Grand Challenge course.
  • Minnesota Social Impact Center. Acara is a partner with this new organization. This helps fill an important void for Acara students that are pursuing their venture ideas. An place to work and get support is crucial. Check out the big event on November 12 and become a member!
We will do another blog post in the near future with more details on the metrics and more charts.



Trash Talking to Trash Walking – Acara Students’ Internship at Waste Ventures India

October 6, 2014bell0384Featured, FellowsComments Off on Trash Talking to Trash Walking – Acara Students’ Internship at Waste Ventures India

When Hunter Dunbar, Alexandra Feeken, and Abbey Seitz accepted an Acara Fellowship with Waste Ventures India, little did they realize that their relationship with garbage would acquire a whole new meaning. Their two-month internship was studded with intimate acquaintances with different pieces of the waste management puzzle, acquiring celebrityhood, encounters with giant infant statues on beachside adventures, and a brush with local politicians. In the midst of all this excitement, the trio engaged in meaningful work, mapping out the waste management sector, a highly relevant, contested and politically charged space in urban India. Their work not only involved a technical analysis of waste byproducts, but also a bird’s eye view of the sector, its stakeholders and their roles.


The Acara Fellows met with a wide variety of stakeholders in the waste sector, including local waste pickers and their families.

The stint was preceded by a kaleidoscopic eye-opener – the Acara May-term Global Seminar 2014 (blogphotos). A three-week experiential learning programme, the course comprised interactions with social entrepreneurs in sectors such as waste management, health, education, water and agriculture, addressing the most pressing urban India-centric issues. In addition to meeting with these entrepreneurs, the class also followed a trash trail from households to a dumpsite, beautified a sullied street corner, and discovered the charms and urban development-centric travails of Bangalore, India, through an exciting treasure hunt. Three weeks of on-ground activities were buttressed by one week of classroom learning, and structured interactions with social entrepreneurs, impact investors, and social venture consultants.

3.11 - DSC00302

The Acara India class spent a day on the Trash Trail with Saahas learning about the waste sector in Bangalore.

However, such a rich arsenal of tools and experiences might not have prepared Hunter, Abbey and Alex for the task that lay ahead – five weeks on the field with Waste Ventures operational staff in Miryalguda, Andhra Pradesh, where they would focus on studying the organic waste supply chain – sorting, processing, composting, and selling the compost to local farmers. This process would work in tandem with examining competing composting models, analyzing optimal pricing and looking at the feasibility of residential and municipal-level composting.


Abbey, Alex, and Hunter helped Waste Ventures  by evaluating composting as a business model in Miryalguda, India.

The team soon realized that they had boarded the ferris wheel of an interesting socio-economic experience. The internship goal was to understand the composting process and assess market demand. Over the course of their program, the team realized the various challenges in the waste sector. As for the nucleus of the business model, the team found the following:
a) Rigorous research involving local farmers to determine optimal compost composition is sorely lacking, and such time is well-worth investing in.
b) Residential captive composting, where waste is segregated, and organic waste channeled into compost, is most feasible.
c) Compost is a low-value product; investment in production and transportation costs is not warranted, as financial yields are low.

The real immersion, however, came from the multicoloured vignettes that studded the team’s time in Miryalguda. They recall how a random walk on the beach was interrupted by a devout woman who dramatically prostrated at their feet, much to their shock and consternation; how random acts of kindness involved spicy meat preparations, and much tongues-on-fire moments; or how, the local newspaper, shrewdly sensing a story-opportunity, had a bewildered, yet indulgent, threesome make headlines.


While exploring waste, the team also met with local politicians.

The five weeks in Miryalguda were followed by a rubber-meet-road stint, where the team travelled to Bangalore, Coimbatore, and Indore, meeting with various stakeholders in the waste management sector. They met with a bouquet of organisations, including Reap Benefit, Saahas, and Indian Green Service. These meetings and field visits helped sculpt the vicissitudes of the waste sector, which transcend processes, into issues of governance, human rights, and equity. The field visits were as visceral and hands-on as they could get, and the learnings were immense. The team learnt that as with everything in India, the phrase, “more to it than meets the eye” really formed the “rule-of-thumb” of their experiences.


The Fellows team interviews waste management stakeholders at a local dump.

The team ended the internship with a flourish, with Hunter being showered in trash in a takeoff of the ALS ice bucket challenge, and Alex and Abbey being willing co-conspirators. This moment of levity was a grand finale to six weeks in a frustratingly complex, yet beautiful country. The team found much appreciation; according to Tiffany Talsma, COO, Waste Ventures, “Hunter, Abbey and Alex were self-starters. They asked all the right questions, and had an open mind. They captured day-to-day learnings with alacrity, and compiled a comprehensive report at the end. We look forward to an opportunity to work with Acara Fellows in the future.”

Some “was”-ted interest, this!

More photos from the experience:



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Check out more on the Acara Fellows’ blogs:






Grand Challenge Impact Studio

September 10, 2014fred.roseAcara News DeskComments Off on Grand Challenge Impact Studio

Poverty. Social inequality. World hunger. Climate change. Disease. Religious intolerance. These are some of the Grand Challenges President Kaler called out in his 2014 State of the University speech. There are many UMN students who are interested in these topics, are taking courses on developing solutions or may already have a venture or business idea. The Grand Challenge Impact Studio is an initiative at the UMN to help you develop and solidify your idea, connect with a strong network of mentors and experts and to launch a pilot.

The Studio is a weekly facilitated session and is intended to be a compliment to any class or program you may be taking.  It will provide a focused time with mentors, outside experts and other students working on similar challenges. This is co-curricular, no credit.  They are scheduled Mondays 3:30-5:00 at IonE on the St. Paul campus. If that time doesn’t work for you, let us know times that may, we will try to schedule a few sessions at other times on the West or East Bank. It’s easy to get to IonE on the St. Paul campus via the connector, which stops right across the street. The Studio starts Monday, Sept 29 and continues through Dec 8. We will likely continue in the spring semester to help teams develop ideas for pilots and minimal viable products.

The Impact Studio is a collaboration of many individuals across campus and is being operated by the Acara program in the Institute on the Environment.  Acara is the 2014 winner of the UMN C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives and has helped develop and launch such ventures as MyRain, a drip irrigation business for small plot farmers in India, Minneapolis-based Twin Fin Aquaponics and Minneapolis-based Eat For Equity. The Impact Studio will also work hand-in-hand with Boreas Leadership Program.

The Impact Studio will include a series of guest mentors. Mentors already committed include: Simone Ahuja, author of Jugaad Innovation,  Brad Lordhing and Scott Nelson of LogicPD, a leading design firm in the area of Internet of Things, Tony Loyd, former executive of John Deere and Medtronic, Leo Sharkey, General Manager, Siemens Water Technologies and others. All have a long track record of innovation in Grand Challenge areas.

Students must apply to be accepted into the GC Studio. The application is here.  Applications are due no later than Sept 22, we will accept on a rolling basis so don’t wait, as we have limited space. You may sign up as an individual or as part of a team. There is no fee associated with the Studio, nor will students receive credit. This is a new initiative we are testing this fall and will have limited enrollment. It’s a great opportunity and you can help shape the GC Studio concept.

There are many great programs now around the university for entrepreneurship, design thinking and others. The GC Impact Studio is not meant to duplicate any of those. It is meant to provide an additional support to develop students interested in impact on Grand Challenges.

 What’s a Grand Challenge?

The ongoing UMN-wide strategy team is developing a working definition of what is meant by a Grand Challenge for operational purposes. In the meantime, the following serves for our purposes[1]:

  1. The situation is emergent,
  2.    as a result, there is a constant flow of information to negotiate,
  3.       this means actors are constantly changing their behavior

Emergent in this case means the properties of the situation arise from the interactions of many parts, which in practical terms means you can’t predict it in advance.

The UMN Grand Challenge – Curriculum Sub-committee, which met over the 2014 summer, has a draft report on recommended action. That is not yet approved for release but the following section summarizes much of the objective of the proposed GC Impact Studio: “At both the undergraduate and post-baccalaureate levels, the goal of the Grand Challenges Curriculum is to help students develop a foundational set of knowledge, skills, and values. The focus is on competencies that prepare students to recognize grand challenges, assess possible points of intervention, and take action. These foundational competencies can be applied across a range of potential grand-challenge topics.”

Pilot: Following the process many team members teach in their respective programs, we are using lean startup methods, in this case proposing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) to test basic assumptions. We propose to pilot the GC Impact Studio for students from various programs around the UMN.

What are the assumptions and hypotheses we want to validate with this MVP?

  • We hypothesize that a co-curricular studio environment can deliver and develop GC skills in students.
  • We hypothesize the Impact Studio can accelerate student led ventures focused on Grand Challenges.
  • We assume students will attend (what is the right mix of location, time, etc.):
  • We test the right program mix (skill building, mentoring, team interactions)
  • There are multiple options for working with students: for-credit classes, extra-curricular, student organization, grad/undergrad, post-graduation. This is a focus on co-curricular.
  • Mixing impact ventures, traditional for-profit, non-profit, policy ventures together will work in one studio.

What happens in the studio?
The studio will provide students a place to:

  • Work with mentors from inside and outside the university, who have expertise valuable to startup teams
  • Work with other students working on similar challenges
  • Connect with a network
  • Spend focused time on your plan
  • Learn skills (presenting, design thinking, funding strategies, etc.)

There will be external and internal UMN mentors in each session. The sessions will follow a general design thinking process of empathy<->design<->ideate<->prototype<->test, over the course of the semester. Again the purpose is to compliment what you are getting in class. It’s more one-on-one time.

The Acara team has delivered more than 10 one-week workshops/classes and 10 semester long courses (which have 3 hour class sessions). During this time, we have developed and used a number of workshop/skill-based sessions, interspersed with one-on-one mentoring. Many of these will form the basis for the sessions. We are not predefining the sessions at this point, except for the first two sessions which will be focused on design thinking.

How is this different from what students may be able to get in other ways or from mentors provided to them? Part of that answer lies in the eligibility. These are not general purpose entrepreneurship focused sessions. Those already exist at the UMN at Carlson and are great. We want to bring in the range of social, environmental, international and Grand Challenge focused ventures. There may be some overlap with other programs but that’s fine. More help for students the better.

[1] Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)

This is India

June 25, 2014fred.roseAcara News Desk, FeaturedComments Off on This is India


We recently returned from our annual Summer Institute course in India. We had 14 UMN students plus 9 other students from India and the US. In pre-departure meetings and during our first few days in India, students asked us questions about aspects of India that appeared illogical to them. Often our response boiled down to, “it’s India”.  Over the last three weeks, students began to understand what that phrase meant; by the end of class, the class motto became “This is India.” Or as one of our van drivers said after one of many close calls in Bangalore traffic, “This is the India”.

For the students, and instructors, this class has been an impactful few weeks. There was no protective shell around the students in India. From day one, students were out in the street and in communities, learning first-hand about issues ranging from water (in)access in slums to solid waste challenges in one of India’s fastest growing cities to women’s livelihoods in rural villages.  A number of students asked why we didn’t help prepare them for what they did. In a way, we did: There were many reading assignments and discussions prior to leaving Minnesota. But the readings and discussions didn’t sink in until we were on the ground in India, which is precisely why we do classes like this.

During the class, we had the opportunity to work with many of Bangalore’s leading change-making organizations, such as Saahas, SELCO, TIDE, and MyRain, among others. One of the inspiring groups we interfaced with was The Ugly Indian, an anonymous movement of Indians cleaning up cities throughout India. With The Ugly Indian, we spent a morning “spot-fixing” one of Bangalore’s iconic streets, turning a neglected, trash-ridden sidewalk into a pleasant and hygienic public space, while attracting the attention of national publications and the neighborhood at large. It was a chance to be part of a movement that matters and to have fun getting into action with some of Bangalore’s most motivated, and known but unknown, social entrepreneurs.

This was an amazing group of students. Every group or organization we visited commented on the maturity of the students and their insightful questions. The students enthusiastically embraced everything from eating street food to negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers over the right fare. These are not skills that can be taught in a classroom.

These weeks in India are some of the best weeks of the year for me. It’s energizing to be with such passionate and smart young people and see their desire, despite the challenges, to tackle tough problems with their Midwestern grit.

“This is India” please meet “This is Minnesota”.

Acara is the impact entrepreneurship program of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management.