For SMU Cox BBA ’23 student Raleigh Dewan, Parkinson’s disease — and the debilitating tremors it can cause — are issues that have weighed heavily on his heart and mind for years. After his grandmother developed the disease and could not feed herself due to extreme hand tremors, he wanted to find a way to help her and the other millions of people around the globe who have Parkinson’s. He had an idea for a product that could create real, positive change, but Dewan needed financial assistance and a platform to pitch his business plan. He successfully participated in the University’s annual Big iDeas Business Plan Competition, a pitch contest.
When asked about the interest from this current generation of students like Raleigh in socially beneficial, entrepreneurial-focused opportunities such as Big iDeas, Jim Bryan, associate dean of BBA Programs at the Cox School, thinks there’s more to that interest than just starting a business.
“I think as a general rule, students have always been this way,” Bryan says. “But I do think this generation may be more driven toward entrepreneurial efforts and social entrepreneurial efforts to make their community better.”
He’s talking about the awareness that many Gen Z students seem to have for the world around them — and, better yet, their drive to address the myriad issues or problems they see by creating positive change. “The difference is the ease at which they can do that,” Bryan adds. “I’m not sure that the same resources were available to students 20 years ago.”
Cox Students Compete to Give Back
At the Cox School, those resources come in many shapes and forms, including willing professors and administrators, a campus-wide interdisciplinary culture and initiatives from SMU’s Office of Engaged Learning, including the business plan pitch contest.
Winners of the pitch contest receive up to $1,000 in seed money and then get the chance to pitch their business plans for an additional $5,000 in funding. Eventually, they showcase their prototypes to entrepreneurs, business owners, alumni and investors at the community-wide Demo Day Fair.
For many of these students, their winning ideas fall into a startup category called social ventures, which can be for-profit or nonprofit. “A social venture is a startup founded with a mission to help solve a societal problem, such as in the areas of education, healthcare, poverty, the environment, etc.,” explains Simon Mak, executive director of the Caruth Institute for Entrepreneurship and professor of practice in the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Business Economics at Cox.
Some of the 2021-22 winning ventures included ideas to address homelessness, human trafficking, menstrual care, food deserts and, in Dewan’s case, Parkinson’s disease.
“My grandmother developed Parkinson’s and began to experience severe hand tremors, so bad that she could no longer feed herself,” Dewan says. “She wouldn’t really want to even eat with us because she was so embarrassed by them.”
Dewan, who grew up around film sets watching the cameras roll, was fascinated by the gimbal joists used during explosive action scenes to help each camera capture a steady shot.
“I had these two things weighing on my mind that were connected,” Dewan says. “How could we stabilize these massive cameras on Hollywood film sets but not stabilize my 90-pound grandmother’s trembling hand?
“So, I began working with a team of biomedical engineers across the country to develop the Steadispoon, a self-stabilizing eating device that enables people with Parkinson’s and essential hand tremors to regain agency, autonomy and dignity in their lives.”
Unfortunately, Dewan’s grandmother passed away before he was able to complete the project, but his vision for positive change remains the same. “It really is about helping people,” he says. “Over 70 million people worldwide suffer from these diseases. So almost everybody has someone in their life who’s affected by these things. So, for me, it really is, ‘How can I create a solution that will be able to help all these people?’”
In the Business of Helping People
Keyshon Jones, BBA ’23, also found inspiration in wanting to help people — and he joined forces with Dewan to pitch Sister Shaq’s Sweet Tea, a socially conscious beverage company with a mission to end human trafficking.
“Raleigh brought this idea to me freshman year and it resonated with me,” Jones says. “I was excited to help a cause that I was passionate about because of how prevalent human trafficking was in Baltimore, my hometown.”
For each Sister Shaq product, which includes a variety of loose-leaf teas, consumers are able to choose one of the company’s partner charities to receive a portion of the proceeds from the purchase.
While these products and ideas have found their callings in doing good, the students behind them have also learned a lot about what it takes to run a business for good.
“It was an amazing experience to be able to organize and present our work to the experienced judges for the competition,” Jones says. “SMU has been a great resource for us as we continue to develop our brand and build the company. From working with professors — and their willingness to spend their time helping us better understand how to market ourselves — to the dining services team building a relationship with us, we have been met with nothing but support from the SMU community.”
Freshman Mason Kenmore, BBA ’25, pitched a winning idea for Sanctuary Showers, a company that provides portable shower tents and hygiene products in homeless communities. For him, the support was also an incredible learning experience.
“SMU and Cox have helped me tremendously along the way,” Kenmore says. “I’m starting to see my idea come to life thanks to the funding that I’ve won through the competitions they put on. Also, the skills that I have been taught through Cox have really sharpened my business skills — just being a first-year has taught me so much about communications and how to be an effective leader, which I have utilized entirely throughout this process to better progress my goal of the business and get others onboard with this vision.”
And for these winners, it’s that inspirational vision that resonates with the rest of the Hilltop — not just their fellow students but faculty and staff as well.
“These are great students,” Bryan says. “I’m very proud of them. They make us realize why we’re really here, and it warms all of our hearts to see them. We’re so proud of all of them. And we just want them to keep doing the great things that they’re doing.”
Professor Simon Mak explains the difference between for-profit social ventures and nonprofit social ventures:
“A for-profit social venture is a startup that has created a business model that provides for independent financial sustainability. It sells goods or services to customers who can and will pay. This is the ‘do well by doing well’ philosophy, sometimes called the double bottom line.”
“A nonprofit social venture is a startup that has created a business model that depends on donations for financial sustainability. It typically sells goods
or services to customers who cannot afford to pay, therefore needing donations to subsidize the company’s financial health.”
Just a few years ago, Cox BBA alumna Claire Ellis, BBA ’18, sat where today’s students are sitting. Now the founder of Malibu Apothecary, a nontoxic, environmentally friendly fragrance company that supports coastal conservation, she returned to Professor Simon Mak’s entrepreneurship class in the spring to offer BBAs some pointers that apply to all types of entrepreneurship. Here, she gives three tips for aspiring entrepreneurs:
1. Just Start:“If you take one step in front of the other, you will eventually look back and be surprised at how far you have gone.”
2. Find Mentors: “We live in a time where we have never been more connected and accessible. Reach out to the three people who could make the biggest impact to your success. Ask them for nothing else except their time to talk about themselves. I assure you if you do this, you will get a lot more back, and you will also find your biggest and best marketers.”
3. Work Hard: “You cannot be afraid of hard work. Like most business owners, you give up working a 9-to-5 just to be lucky if you get five to nine hours of sleep. There is flexibility and freedom involved, but everything comes at a cost. Gone are the days of PTO or, in many cases, co-workers. It can be a lonely process, but you have to have a passion for the process and not the results or benefits that come after the hard work. Otherwise, it is not sustainable.”