Alissa Danckaert-Skovira is a lifelong Akron resident who shares today's guest article about a unique entrepreneurship contest at the University of Akron.


Spend five minutes with Anoo Vyas and he will convince you that all is right with the world. The co-director of The University of Akron’s Experiential Learning Center (EXL), extends his unchecked optimism in particular to the youth of today — tomorrow’s leaders. EXL recently hosted Be the Change 10k!, a pitch competition where students come up with an idea to benefit the community. Sponsored by the Akron Leadership Foundation, the ideas may be intended for a non-profit or for-profit business, but must, according to Anoo, “give back to the community.”

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The program originally launched in fall of 2017, but it lacked the social change component. Expanding the program’s mission brought fresh enthusiasm to the competition.

Be the Change 10K! helps students take good ideas and lay the foundation beneath them through support from mentors in the business community and UA faculty. Former IBM employee Paul DeCapua is one of these mentors, spending his retirement volunteering over seventy hours a week for projects such as this. He also judged the final competition, and he was delighted to see that the six finalist teams finished “within three points of each other.” Like Anoo, he rejects the idea that kids today are lazy or apathetic, urging anyone who believes that to “get involved to find out how real and focused and bright these kids are.”

Students from all disciplines are encouraged to participate. The Shark Tank-like competition has drawn students from fields as different as nutrition, education, and engineering. The main prize of $10,000 goes to the winning team to help launch its entrepreneurial enterprise.

Anoo stresses that it’s not enough to simply have a great idea. Students must conceptualize them, realizing they “are not operating in a vacuum.” He wants students to learn how to make the right contacts, ask the right questions, and realize that “they really have power.”

The semester project began in early March as teams were formed. Then a series of workshops followed featuring topics like “Nonprofits and Social Enterprises: Legal Hurdles” and “Running a Nonprofit: The Real World.”

Nicole Mullet, executive director of Artsnow and 2014 recipient of the “Woman to Watch” award from the Summit County Historical Society, spoke to the teams about the challenges of creating a non-profit. “We’re teaching these students how to navigate a complex world,” she said. The students impressed her with their projects.  Win or lose, she could see that “these students are going to move forward.”

Sharing that view, certified business advisor Jim Griggy also helped mentor the students, holding office hours with them in the EXL center. He noted that while people have “great ideas and intentions, many have not taken a realistic bite of the problem.” He helps students frame their ideas in such a way as to make them a reality. The best intentions must be made practical.

Christin Seher, faculty mentor from the College of Health Professions at UA agreed, adding, “Students get to really sit in the 'messiness' that is community-based work, learn diverse perspectives of thought, hear from folks in the Akron community and make connections to Akron in ways that can't be fostered in the classroom.”

The connection to the region and the emotional and financial investment in the area serves as another important aspect of the competition. Anoo Vyas describes this component as being “fluent in the language of Akron.”

Team Erie Open Spec claimed this year’s $10,000 prize. Team members Banafsheh Khakipoor, Kelly Siman, and Jiansheng Feng were surprised and delighted by their victory. Both Banafsheh and Kelly are PhD candidates in Biomimicry while Jiansheng is a research scientist at The University of Akron.

During the competition, each team got to watch their opponents’ pitches for the first time.

“We were the first to pitch. All the ideas were amazing,” Kelly said of the competition.

Erie Open Spec featured a spectrometer to aid in the early detection of algal blooms in areas dominated by heavy agricultural production. Jiansheng noted that spectrometers are a “well-known working principle” but the challenge was to offer a low-cost option.

The algal blooms, according to Kelly, are “quite the issue.” The city of Toledo, for example, had to shut down its water supply for three days due to the presence of the blooms.

Traditional spectrometers can cost between $1500-$3000. Erie Open Spec came up with an alternative using cell phone cameras with a variation of the spectrometer that would detect the presence of phosphorous and nitrogen. Bacteria associated with harmful algal blooms can sicken both animals and humans, and in some cases, even cause fatalities in both.

“We have customers lined up,” Kelly said of their venture. “It fills a niche.” The prize money will help them realize their dreams. Banafsheh cited the need to “formalize the company and finish the website.”

The excitement generated by Be the Change 10k! pitch eclipses the pessimism often showered upon the younger generation. Student EbaNee Bond is credited with naming the competition, finding inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. While his words have been Americanized into “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” he originally told his audience, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. . . . We need not wait to see what others do.”

The students in The Be the Change 10k! competition clearly are not about to sit back and wait to see what others do; they are changing the world. 

This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.

(All photos courtesy of Mitaya Collins)



About the Author

Alissa Danckaert-Skovira teaches writing at Kent State University. She has a background in English and history, and she enjoys anything and everything to do with research and writing. Her interests include historical preservation, politics, gardening, and all things Akron.