Students Recognized in Statewide Social Venture Challenge

Plymouth State students received an award for the Most Impactful Story to Engage Stakeholders at the recent NH Social Venture Innovation Challenge. While others focused on engineering and science solutions, the Plymouth Cares One-Stop Shop is all about meeting students’ basic needs. Unmet basic needs, to be exact.

The annual challenge event demonstrates the keen interest and creativity of students, community entrepreneurs, and activists in helping address some of society’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.

Zachary Eastman ’21 and Noah Fiske ’21 presented their vision: a virtual integration of all of the resources that students need to succeed, including food, clothing, housing, health insurance, personal hygiene products, and school supplies such as laptops, notebooks, binders, pens, and pencils. Far too many lack these necessities. Their presentation was supported by a video produced by Michayla Sharlow ’21.

Zachary Eastman ’21

At Plymouth State, where 40 percent of students are first generation (neither parent having attended college), the pandemic is exacerbating already challenging lives. “With this virtual one-stop shop, we could have first gen students read up on all of the services that we have to help them succeed,” says Eastman. “That knowledge is important, and if their families back at home cannot support them with that information, how are they going to do well in college?”

Thirty percent of current students report lacking some of their basic needs, but Eastman and Fiske maintain the percentage surpasses fifty given COVID.

Eastman’s experience of homelessness is a driving force. After transferring to Plymouth State, it took time to learn about various services, and he wants to introduce them more efficiently. “I was a homeless student with a 1.57 GPA in a terrible place, and now I have a 3.94 GPA and I’m in the best place mentally, physically, emotionally,” he explains. “Now that I’m able to focus on my academics because I have these basic needs, I’m able to accentuate my full potential and focus on what needs to be done. I don’t want any student to go through what I did.”

Eastman’s concept was refined through PSU’s Transformative Innovation & Design Entrepreneurship (TIDE) program. In Spring 2020, Professor Howard Frederick’s Design Thinking course introduced Eastman to the Empathy Map Canvas, a survey that assesses target customer motivation. “Professor Frederick said the root of your business or social entrepreneurship idea should come from customer pain,” Eastman remembers. “This pain that I was thinking about came from my own experience with homelessness.”

In Fall 2020, Eastman and classmates in Professor Bonnie Bechard’s Social Entrepreneurship course turned this idea into action, learning from beginning to end how to plan and build a social venture. They researched the challenge of basic needs insecurity, analyzed stakeholders, and mapped out available resources, and then engaged with the community to co-create and design the solution.

Noah Fiske ’21

When it came time to pitch, Eastman partnered with Fiske, president of the PSU chapter of Enactus, an international student organization that uses entrepreneurial action to benefit people in need. Professor Bechard suggested that he and Eastman work together. “I had experience going to events like the PSU Panther Pitch and the Enactus national competition,” says Fiske. “Zach had the idea and the passion, and it worked out really well.”

Research conducted by one group of Social Entrepreneurship students included interviewing Professor Rachelle Lyons, who teaches a Tackling a Wicked Problem course on food insecurity and food waste. Pre-COVID, Lyons was already leading field trips to observe mobile food banks in New Hampshire. “COVID has made it harder for us to deny this reality,” she says. “By taking substantial action, Noah and Zach advance the conversation on a very uncomfortable issue, which is an unflattering reflection of ourselves. This work needs to be embraced at all levels to make real, measurable change.”

The researchers also interviewed Professor Kimberly Livingstone, whose areas of scholarship include homeless service-users’ experiences. “Prior to the pandemic, over 35,000 unaccompanied youth under the age of 25 experienced homelessness on any given night in the US, and homelessness among students is of particular concern,” she says. “PSU has developed vital protocols and programs to support homeless and at-risk students in our community, leading the way for postsecondary institutions in New Hampshire. Zach and Noah’s social venture will complement the important student support and housing initiatives helping our students in need.”

The project begins this spring with a website. “This will streamline the process of getting information to people quicker and easier,” says Fiske. Next will come further assessment, and the third phase will focus on newly identified needs—for example, a professional clothing store on campus.

Proposals to sustain the one-stop shop include a dedicated student fee, an event to reuse or sell donations, and branded apparel. Both students are seniors and are working to keep the momentum going after graduation. Enactus, the Student Support Foundation and Food Pantry, Social Entrepreneurship students, and PSU faculty and staff are envisioned as keys to project continuance. 

The NH Social Venture Innovation Challenge awarded Eastman and Fiske $2,500 to further their efforts, but to Eastman, the reward is more personal. “I feel like it’s my due diligence as a homeless college student to give back to my community,” he says. “An idea like this, even if it helps just a few people, will make a big difference.”