A Hands-On Approach to Learning About Impact
Posted February 04, 2021 by Nicole Hansen
- Communications Coordinator - University of Richmond, Robins School of Business
One thing business students quickly discover is that the decisions of business leaders can have a major impact on the local community or the wider world. In fact, at the University of Richmond in Virginia, it’s a lesson that some students are learning this year during their very first semester on campus.
They’re part of Endeavor RSB, a living-learning community for the Robins School of Business where first-year students live in the same dorm, take integrated courses in an intentional curriculum, and participate together in extracurricular activities. Every year, Endeavor RSB students master introductory business concepts, explore potential business careers, and learn about services and opportunities available at the school. The 38 people in this year’s cohort are a mix of U.S. and international students, including five who are participating virtually from around the globe.
Because the 2020–21 theme for Endeavor RSB is “Societal Impact Through Business,” this year’s students also are discovering how a business decision can have real-world consequences and how they can use their own careers to become forces for good. And they began learning that lesson with a project that launched in the fall semester.
Designing for Impact
The project was a competition for students to design a T-shirt that would symbolize the program’s focus. The winning design would be printed and distributed to all members of the living-learning community.
Students were divided into five teams of between five and eight students each, with remote students forming their own team. Each group came up with its own T-shirt design, identified sourcing, and calculated how the manufacture of the T-shirt could support local and minority businesses. Students were given basic parameters and a maximum budget before beginning the project.
As the teams refined their designs, they both worked together and competed with each other. Because students all live in the same residence hall, they were able to solicit input from their dormmates to get feedback on their designs—and do a little lobbying for their own creations. Eventually, students in the program voted on the winning entry via an online survey.
Each group chose to highlight different aspects of the program, school, or theme. One group designed a shirt that featured red-pepper gouda soup, which is sold at a café within the business school and is a favorite among students. Another team wanted to create a series of unique tie-dyed shirts, each one embellished with a handmade spider logo to symbolize the University of Richmond’s mascot. This team also wanted to support two different businesses that provided tie-dyeing and printing services.
Students learned how to make a pitch, how to make decisions as a collective, and how to think more deeply about business.
“One of the groups included the design of the ceiling of the room in which they met every Monday night,” says Saif Mehkari, associate professor of economics. “To them, that was an important part of their identity, especially during COVID-19 times, as that was the only place where they could come together as a community.”
The winning design, which also included the spider logo, featured a globe as a way to reflect the international nature of the cohort. The T-shirts were manufactured locally by a minority-owned business using sustainable products.
Learning Valuable Lessons
The project was intended to help students hone a variety of skills that will be important when they’re in the working world: how to make a pitch, how to make decisions as a collective, how to think more deeply about business, and how to understand tradeoffs.
“The students had to decide on everything, from the vendor to the design to the material to the color, all with a budget cap,” Mehkari says. “This led to interesting questions, such as, Should we use two colors or a nicer T-shirt material? Should we go to a large vendor for a cheaper price or support a local small business?”
At the same time, the project created a sense of community among students who have been separated by the pandemic, says Cassandra Marshall, associate professor of finance. Not only are some students living in Richmond and some in remote locations, but many classes are being held across the University of Richmond campus instead of within the halls of the Robins School, as a way to ensure social distancing. By working on the T-shirt project together, Marshall says, students developed a sense of belonging within the Robins School.
The final, and arguably most important, lesson is that business education can be a force for good. That was what resonated most with Thando Tsela, a student in the program. Tsela says, “The project shows how little changes to the way that we choose to do things can have a particular societal impact.”
Nicole Hansen is the communications coordinator of the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond in Virginia.