Social change, not profit, is winning innovator’s aim

May 15, 2012 from UT-San Diego

by Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry

For a certain breed of entrepreneur, the next big thing is not always about money. It is about applying their skills to find sustainable and innovative ways to change the world and make it better, and the University of San Diego is taking a lead role in this important trend with its recent Social Innovation Challenge competition.

This year’s winner, Eat Better Today, is a mobile food-catering truck that will provide healthy food to homeless individuals. Eat Better Today’s founder Teresa L. Smith, who is studying for a master of arts degree in nonprofit leadership, beat out 51 other teams for the $10,000 first-prize award. The service will begin in late May, and the homeless will be able to pay with Cal-Fresh benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

Before starting the masters’ program at USD, Smith was already an entrepreneur in the nonprofit sector. A trained social worker who has long been involved with homeless issues, in 2009 she started Dreams for Change to “utilize innovative techniques and methods to meet the basic needs” of the homeless. The organization’s first initiative was the Safe Parking Program that provides a supportive environment for homeless who live in their cars. Next came food.

“I got the idea for Eat Better Today a little over a year ago when I was talking to some of the participants in the Safe Parking Program. They talked a lot about the food issue — waiting in long lines, getting food that wasn’t great or healthy, and of course they don’t have a place to prepare their own meals,” said Smith.

Just like any entrepreneur, Smith listened to her customers. This is a core principle in the “lean startup” model. The customer will tell you what business you should be in. Listen to them.

Keeping costs down was important, so Smith worked with the county of San Diego to be able to accept Cal-Fresh benefits and to enroll people seamlessly at the truck. The county has provided funding for a worker to handle the applications. The Uptown Rotary Club and the Lions Club have also provided capital. In essence, she built a socially focused support network where each element provided a small piece of the puzzle, and no one organization bore the whole burden.

In addition, Smith said, “We will be using a lot of volunteers to make the food and work on the truck, and we are asking the homeless to volunteer so they learn about how to run a small business. We want to empower them.” The group has purchased a used food truck for $26,000, and Smith estimates that the annual cost of operating one truck is $100,000. Her goal is make each truck self-sustaining through the revenues from Cal-Fresh.

Smith credits the USD master’s program with being an important source of inspiration. “I’ve learned that you have to be willing to take risks. People told me there is no way you can pull this off. It’s too far out there. I learned that when you’re pushing the envelope of change, this is a standard response. I’ve also learned that failure is all right and that you have to be able to move to the next stage,” she said.

“Social innovation requires energy, creativity and enthusiasm, having your feet on the ground and a willingness to do the hard work,” said Patricia Marquez, director of USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce, which is collaboration between the School of Business Administration and the Institute for Peace and Justice.

Note: While USD celebrated social innovation, the annual University of California San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering Research Expo featured “posters” by 230 graduate students, many of whom also have entrepreneurial dreams. The winner — Carolyn Schutt, a Ph.D. student in bioengineering — is developing a more sensitive imaging technique that can hopefully improve how we diagnose breast cancer. Schutt also finds time to participate in the community. She was the lead organizer for the Jacobs School exhibit at the recent San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering for K-12 students.

Our city is alive with the sound of innovation.

Rule No. 52

If you can do well at the same time you do good — that is the next big thing.

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