Pitching idea hard enough as it; try it using sign language

Published in UT San Diego, May 20, 2013

Most of us take hearing and speaking for granted. Don’t.

It is hard enough to pitch your idea with words. Now imagine doing it in sign language.

Speaking in sign language with an interpreter, graduate student Isidore Niyongabo won $15,000 (the highest amount awarded) in the recent University of San Diego Social Innovation Challenge (SIC) for his International Deaf Education Advocacy and Leadership (IDEAL) program that addresses the issue of educating the estimated 57 million deaf people in developing countries, most of whom currently have no access to education. He also won an additional $2,500 for getting the most texted votes in Qualcomm Labs’ Audience Choice Contest.

Niyongabo’s personal story is inspirational. He grew up in Burundi in East Africa and lost his hearing at the age of 10 after suffering from spinal meningitis. Through the efforts of his father, who later, sadly, became a genocide victim, he received an education in Burundi and then came to the United States, where he graduated from San Diego State University in 2010.

Interest in starting social enterprises is growing, and the University of San Diego has taken a leadership role in fostering their development both through its academic programs and the establishment of an annual Social Innovation Challenge, now in its third year.

Social enterprises are organizations (both for-profit and nonprofit) whose primary purpose is the common good, according to the Social Enterprise Alliance. These organizations use the methods and disciplines of business — including the establishment of measurable goals — and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental and human justice agendas.

The prize money allows Niyongabo to develop an online resource in conjunction with the first East Africa Deaf Youth Leadership Summit that will take place in June in Uganda. He has already raised the funding for the conference, and the 50 participants between the ages of 18 and 30 have been selected by their communities in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. At the summit, they will be trained on how to become advocates, leaders and mentors so that they can return home and guide others.

The long-term goals of IDEAL are to increase the number of deaf students accepted into universities, receiving educational scholarships, and getting jobs. Niyongabo’s team and advisers includes both people who can hear and deaf people.

As we’ve written before, your own experience is sometimes the genesis for starting a business. This is true in the case of Connor Lind, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, who was awarded $8,500 for Roam — which he describes as “Yelp” for volunteering.

While in high school, Lind started doing international volunteer work when he had the opportunity to go on a Habitat for Humanity trip to Poland. Another volunteer opportunity came out of a chance meeting with a USD professor who connected him to a Buddhist nunnery in the Himalayas, where he taught English last summer.

“Roam came out of my desire to share these opportunities and to make them more accessible for other people by having volunteers share their personal experiences,” said Lind. “There are vast databases of nonprofits but no way to figure out how to assess the quality of a volunteer experience and which ones are legitimate and which ones aren’t.”

Graduate student Teresa Smith, the SIC winner in 2012, won this year’s $10,000 Verizon Green Award for the Safe Parking program that provides a safe designated place with support services for transitional homeless living in their vehicles.

Last year, she won for her mobile food truck business that provides healthy food to homeless individuals. The “Fresh” truck currently operates at lunchtime during the week and makes three stops — at the Neil Good Day Center, Winter Shelter Tent and 14th Street and Imperial Avenue. This summer, Smith plans to expand into dinner service and potentially Saturdays. About half of the customers pay with food stamps and the other half with cash.

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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