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The City Urban Perspectives

Students Present Business Plans to Benefit Seattle Neighborhood

Sharks at the Beach

By Deanna Duff | Photo by Luke Rutan

The Rainier Makers TeamThe Rainier Makers team presented their plan, intended to help cultivate creativity in Seattle's Rainier Valley neighborhood.

At the second-annual Sharks at the Beach business competition, a whimsical diorama became the centerpiece uniting students, community leaders, and Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood. Lego characters danced across a miniature seascape and LED lights twinkled like fireflies. It was part of the winning team’s presentation proposing a mobile, creative workspace for the neighborhood — an example of innovative thinking both in and outside the box.

“Working with the community really gives these ideas life,” says Drew Svendsen, a Seattle Pacific University 2015 graduate in mechanical engineering and a member of Rainier Makers, the winning team. “Working and theorizing in the classroom doesn’t give the same perspective as seeing the fruits of your labor.”

SPU’s Social Venture Plan Competition invites undergrad and graduate students to create business plans integrating both social betterment and financial viability. Participants have represented more than 20 academic disciplines ranging from global development and engineering to English and psychology. The ideas are judged by local business leaders, experts, consultants, and others.

“We challenge the students to think about what their faith tells them to be concerned about. Climate, human trafficking, poverty? How then can they creatively use business as an expression to combat those problems in an active and intentional way?” explains Mark Oppenlander, director of SPU’s Center for Applied Learning in the School of Business, Government, and Economics.

In 2014, the Center partnered with Urban Impact, a faith-based organization dedicated to community-building in Rainier Valley to launch a spinoff competition, Sharks at the Beach, modeled after the popular television show Shark Tank (the “Beach” refers to Rainier Beach neighborhood within the Rainier Valley). SPU students worked with local entrepreneurs to develop business plans specific to the neighborhood. They then presented their plans in public and were questioned and evaluated by a panel of community members.

“It teaches these future leaders that there are different neighborhoods and different cultures to consider. You can’t make assumptions about how to do things until you go and work in these environments,” says Harry Thomas, a competition judge, former T-Mobile marketing director, and longtime Rainier Valley resident. “I think jobs are one of the most critical elements for a community to thrive.”

Four teams chose to participate in the Social Venture Plan Competition’s Rainier Valley track, which required competing in both the SPU plan showcase event and the “Sharks” event. Ideas included a hip-hop venue, a mobile pet-food/coffee truck, a clothing company that trains and hires female refugees and human trafficking survivors, plus Rainier Makers, which hopes to launch as an actual business.

“There are many people in the Valley interested in pursuing a business. This program also allowed us to learn alongside and benefit from the students,” says Helen Shor-Wong, Rainier Valley resident.

Shor-Wong and her husband, Andy Wong, already host “maker” neighborhood summer camps through their home-based business, Growing Marigolds. Working with their 9-year-old daughter, they have firsthand experience understanding how creating brings families together, and they want to reach more people. They envision Rainier Makers as a mobile “maker” space where young people could learn in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields using media such as woodworking, textiles, and circuitry. Rainier Makers has already attracted potential investors, and the Wongs are now using the “Sharks” business plan to solicit more interest.

Shor-Wong attended SPU’s Social Venture Planning class once weekly to collaborate with her student team members and valued the opportunity to learn herself.

“Spending time in class allowed us to connect in a more intimate way,” Shor-Wong says. “I hope the program keeps growing over time because there was such a significant coming together of resources on both ends.”