EMU student group offers grants, education, and community for social-impact entrepreneurs

A new student organization at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) is seeking to not only fund small startups that have a social mission, but to also create a community for local entrepreneurs.

Core team members of the organization, called Optimize Eastern, describe it as a social innovation community that supports student-led social impact projects. The organization was created by students for students.
"We welcome anything from urban farming to creating a new business to virtual reality gaming to anything else you see a need for," says Mohamed Said, Optimize Eastern president and EMU junior. "It's a chance to be a pioneer for a just and sustainable future for all in your community."


Creating social impact through a community of innovators

Said says Optimize Eastern started about two years ago after he and another student visited business clubs on campus and couldn't find exactly what they wanted.


"There wasn't a community of innovators and people passionate about changing the world," Said says. "We wanted to focus on creating social impact through innovation and building a community of innovators."


Optimize Eastern offers small grants for impact-oriented businesses, but its mission goes beyond that of a traditional pitch competition. The organization provides workshops and mentorships, even for students who do not win funding for their initiatives.


"We have a set number of workshops they have to go to throughout the year, and those are outlined during the initial meeting with the project team," says Tiarra Stallings, social media strategist for Optimize Eastern. "We're flexible though, so if someone isn't able to make one, we can work with them one-on-one. We just want to make sure (each project team) is moving along at a similar pace."


A showcase toward the end of the academic year allows the community to see what project teams have accomplished and which project teams will receive grants.


Tristan Shah, now a junior studying data science, was one of the grant winners in Optimize Eastern's first showcase earlier this year. Shah's team used his data analysis skills to create a system called Quazar for people to track the buy, sell, and hold signals for stocks they are interested in. They also created a website to host the prototype, which Shah says would make money through subscription fees.


The social impact part of the Quazar project, Shah says, is to allow local small businesses and community members in Ypsilanti to use the program for free, saving themselves money they might otherwise spend on professional financial advisor services.


During the showcase event, the team was awarded $600 to help pay for a program that gives the team access to data needed to develop a predictive algorithm.


"Optimize is awesome," Shah says. "It's a really great step in the right direction for inspiring students to start their own project."


He says "ideas are cheap" but Optimize helps inspire entrepreneurs with good ideas to take action on them.


"You might not make anything of the original idea, but you might find another way to progress and get good experience for future work as an entrepreneur," Shah says.


Gabrielle Reed was another student in the Optimize Eastern cohort last year. She says it was inspiring to meet other entrepreneurs like Grace Hsia, founder of Ann Arbor-based Warmilu, a company that creates low-cost, reusable, non-electric heating packs to help curb infant mortality in less developed countries.


"That was really eye-opening, seeing entrepreneurs who came from a university environment and who are now doing entrepreneurship full-time after college," Reed says.


During the spring showcase, she was able to present her idea for a mobile app that would connect college women with academic and professional mentors. As a first-generation college student on her father's side, Reed says she knew that people in her position would benefit greatly from networking and mentorship.


"I realized a lot of people don't know how to network in a physical way and get really nervous when they go to an event," she says. "I thought it would be so cool to have an app that would help you find a mentor within a 30-mile radius, and I wanted to target women because woman-to-woman mentoring is (important) because we still need more representation of women in different fields."


Reed did not receive a grant but says she "made a lot of great connections, and got mentorship and ideas in regard to my app idea."


Chloe Spencer, a sophomore who serves as secretary and videographer for Optimize Eastern, says the Optimize team felt Reed's idea was a good one.


"We thought she had a great idea but needed more time and more connections," Spencer says, so Reed has been invited back to get more of both during the fall 2019 semester.


Expanding the program to create a bigger impact


All members of the Optimize Eastern core team are hoping to grow the organization in the coming years, and they're one step closer to that goal due to a recent $25,000 grant from the Ford Motor Co. Fund's Ford College Community Challenge. Ford's grantmaking program is designed to inspire student teams to develop creative community-building projects that address local needs and make lives better.


The grants awarded in Optimize Eastern's first year were small, less than $1,000 per project team. However, the Ford grant will allow Optimize Eastern to make awards up to $3,000 per team in the coming school year.


The next opportunity for community members to learn more about Optimize Eastern is to attend its upcoming Social Impact Fair at the EMU Student Center on Sept. 25. The event is geared toward EMU students but the general public is invited to attend.


"We're highlighting various organizations, nonprofits, and companies in the community who have a similar mission to the Optimize mission," Stallings says.


Companies including Tinker Tech, Digital Inclusion, and Cultivate are slated to participate. Students will be able to learn about volunteer opportunities, internships, and potential employment opportunities with those businesses and others.


Spencer says Optimize Eastern's core team is six people now but she'd like to see it grow to 10 or more.


"We need people to help us with our social impact fair and other big events," Spencer says. "We also want to give more and to more groups, and help create connections for people even if they don't receive money. We want to give them whatever they need to get projects off the ground (and) give them a chance to bounce ideas off people who know people who can help them with expertise or money."


Students interested in joining the Optimize Eastern core team may email optimize.emu@gmail.com. Students who are interested in being part of the second cohort of project teams have until Oct. 2 to apply through the Optimize Eastern website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.