Building business skills while making a positive impact on the community is at the heart of a project recently undertaken by students enrolled in the University of Mississippi’s Professional MBA program.
The only project of its kind in the country, the Online Venture Challenge is a social entrepreneurship project that allows students to gain hands-on business experience through the development and launch of an e-commerce website. Proceeds from the sites benefit charities of the students’ choice. During spring 2013, four teams raised more than $5,000 for charity in just one month.
The project began after a conversation between Clay Dibrell, UM associate professor of management, and a former colleague, who created the Online Venture Challenge at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia. In 2012, Dibrell became the first to pilot the project in the United States; the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, began its pilot this year. Four teams participated at UM this year, up from just one in the pilot phase.
“The Online Venture Challenge was appealing for several reasons,” Dibrell said. “All of the students enrolled in this class participate online, so the collaboration and team building in that environment was natural for them. It provided an opportunity for students to take lessons from the classroom and put them into a real-world situation while allowing them to also think creatively about developing a business plan to address a social need.
“Because it was established as a class project, the risk was low but the rewards were limitless. This year’s project really expanded upon what we learned last year, and it certainly set the bar high for next year’s teams.”
Although the goal of the Online Venture Challenge is clear, it is anything but easy. Students are challenged to build an e-commerce site, launch it and raise as much money for charity as they can in 30 days. These four projects were created:
- Give a Dog a Bone benefited the Pearl River County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals through online sales of animal food and treats, as well as services such as spaying, neutering and vaccinations.
- Virtual Fundraising benefited St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through the creation of a virtual fundraising campaign.
- itibapflap.com provided online sales of patches, scarves/neckerchiefs, medallions and other items for Boy Scouts of America’s Order of the Arrow Itibapishe Iti Hollo Lodge.
- Run to Fund organized an online community of runners who participated in virtual races that raised money for charities of the runners’ choice.
John Oakley, a student from Charleston, S.C., in his second year of the Professional MBA program, said the assignment opened his eyes to the power of social media and technology in reaching people across the country and around the world.
“It was interesting to discover firsthand how much of an impact social media can have on important social causes,” Oakley said. “By using social media almost exclusively, our group was able to generate real revenue for St. Jude with a presence that reached overseas. Think about when a disaster strikes, anywhere in the world. The Red Cross and numerous relief funds are established and begin accepting donations simply by sending a text message. The power and utilization of cellphones, smart phones and tablets is just starting to be realized.
“Even though our team members were located in different states, we understood the goal of the project and worked together on all aspects to raise as much money as possible for the children of St. Jude. Completing this project has provided valuable insight into a potentially greater market than currently exists.”
While impressed with the financial results and solutions developed by his students, Dibrell also points to the benefits the project provides by empowering his students to be able to use their business skills to improve social issues within their own communities.
“At Ole Miss, service is part of the learning culture, and this project reinforces that message,” Dibrell said. “It was rewarding to see our students get excited about solving social problems. I hope they will use what they learned to not only build their own businesses but to also make a positive impact in their communities.” The next project will be conducted during the spring 2014 semester.
– Sharon Morris, Business First Magazine, Ole Miss Business