Creating Change: Stamps’ social entrepreneurs are ones to watch

 “It’s so rare for an arts school to be located on a campus that provides the opportunity to explore so many other fields.” – Keefer Edwards, Stamps student and founder of Keef Company, an eco-friendly Michigan-based business that produces handmade fashion items

The Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan (Stamps) invests in students’ entrepreneurial ambitions. The school fosters emerging entrepreneurs, particularly those equipped with a strong desire to socially benefit the world.

Stamps urges art and design students to collaborate with those in other fields of study, offering the chance to minor and dual major so students can become multi-disciplined and advance their business vision. You can even minor in pure entrepreneurship, so a budding business will benefit your studies, your career, and the wider world. The optiMize Social Innovation is a key component to the success of Stamps students and alumni.

OptiMize is a student organization that fuels social entrepreneurship within students at the University of Michigan. The organization provide resources, including funding and mentorship, to those looking to form projects and start-ups with social aspects.

The program encourages students to say “why not me?” when thinking about starting a business. People do it all over the world every day: why shouldn’t I?

Stamps has already produced many successful entrepreneurs, and will no doubt go on to produce many more. Here are just some of many social businesspeople whose journeys started with Stamps and optiMize.

Leesta – The ‘Lozano Sisters’, Beatriz and Virginia Lozano

The Lozano sisters graduated in 2016 after founding Leesta, an online educational platform designed to help elementary school children learn about the accomplishments of women of color. The name came from a phonetic play on the colloquial Spanish word “lista”, which means intelligent female.

“The general idea came from thinking back on our own history education, and trying to name women that we had learned about in school,” said Virginia Lozano in an interview with local media-maker and entrepreneur Mark Maynard.

“Beatriz and I could not name one American Latina that we’d learned about. And, after posing similar questions to our friends, who come from different cultural backgrounds, we started hearing the same things from them. Like us, they couldn’t name women in American history that they related to.”

The sisters looked to OptiMize, and within a short while created a prototype. In November 2015, during the first semester of their final year at Stamps, the team at optiMize managed to secure a grant from Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation for the sisters, enabling them to expand their platform.

“During the year, optiMize was pretty intense,” said Beatriz Lozano. This intensity readied the young women for the business world.

“We were coming from a position where we didn’t have experience in this world [of social innovation and entrepreneurship]. Working with them really prepared us; learning how to pitch, setting up our model, and getting to know other teams really helped us.”

Simplify – Arwin Wang

2017 Stamps graduate Wang also found success through optiMize whilst studying at Stamps. What is now the Simplify app, started through 36-hour ‘hackathon’ MHacks back in 2014. Put simply, Simplify combines many apps and services into one user-friendly app.

The app takes amenities like Uber, GrubHub, Facetime, iMessage, and iPhoto and puts them in one place to help seniors lead an independent 21st century lifestyle in the 21st century.

“Traditionally, my grandparents would live with their children in old age, but the world has changed. Families are globalized. And tech can be confusing for seniors. Digital natives shouldn’t be the only ones who benefit from web-based services; seniors need them too.”

Like the Lozano sisters, Wang was able to access the many facilities and services optiMize provide including workshops, speakers, milestone reviews, mentorships, and other professional development opportunities. Everything at optiMize is designed to improve students’ projects, ready for the real-world marketplace.

“The optiMize community is incredibly supportive,” she said. “It’s competitive, but it’s also a place where we really help each other. The mentorships are very helpful; our mentors talk to us at the same level as any professional.”

Annually, participants in optiMize pitch their final products to a panel of judges. Only a select few are selected for Fellowships but the winners receive a large cheque to help further their business. In March 2016 Wang was selected and received an $8,000 cheque to develop Simplify further.

“Through my […] coursework, I learned how to investigate what products people want and how people use them,” Wang claimed.

“A lot of times, we’re tempted to design from our imagination, from what we think people want; I love approaching the process from another angle. As a designer, I’m uniquely positioned to act as a mediator between engineers and users. This approach was critical to my work on Simplify and I can definitely see myself working this way throughout my career.”

Arwin Wang (right)

ADAPT – Sidney Krandall (Co-founder)

ADAPT consists of an interdisciplinary team who work towards creating high-quality products for those suffering with health problems. Whilst undertaking design research, the team looked at how stereotypes of disabled people can influence product design and functionality.

“As we look at the relationship between aesthetics, stigma, and functionality, we are exploring how we can maximize usability for the consumer, but also erode negative stigmas and improve body image through the visual components of our products,” claimed Krandall.

ADAPT developed attachments which address common issues for wheelchair-users, like holding an umbrella. Krandall personally collaborated with an undergraduate wheelchair-user for her senior year project. With her help, Krandall created a winter wheelchair glove prototype, and the design was later produced by ADAPT.

Students at Stamps are fully supported in embarking on their entrepreneurial dreams. Keef, Leesta, Simplify, and ADAPT are just some of the many start-ups Stamps students have successfully produced.

Bringing an innovative idea to life takes more than just the first spark of inspiration. Stamps provides students with the necessary skills, funding, and mentoring to bring those ideas into reality without loosing sight of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for meaningful social impact.

In the words of Keefer Edwards: “Stamps is the perfect place for an entrepreneur in the art and design field.”

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