On Friday, seven teams virtually presented their social venture ideas to a panel of judges in the St. Thomas finals of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge (GSIC).  

The Fowler GSIC is a multi-round social venture competition inviting students to engage with one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by developing a sustainable social venture.  

“Although we couldn’t be together to celebrate in person, it’s vitally important that we continue to support and celebrate the work of our Tommie entrepreneurs, as we did through the virtual competition,” said Laura Dunham, associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. “As we get through this current crisis and beyond, the work of social entrepreneurs will be more important than ever to help us meet the new challenges and fill the new needs that are emerging in our world today. This competition demonstrated that although our Tommie entrepreneurs may be separated by physical distance, they are still working together to build their knowledge and skills, to pursue their dreams and to solve problems that matter. And that is powerful and inspiring!  

The teams competing in the St. Thomas finals took home a total of $10,500 in cash prizes. BraillEazy and DigiConnections were chosen to represent the university at the Global Finals where they’ll have a chance to win up to $50,000 in seed funding.  

  • BraillEazy ($2,500 winneralso $1,000 for best presenter): Even though braille is vital for the financial and social independence of the blind, only one out of 10 blind people in the U.S. are braille literate today. BraillEazy is an innovative smartphone case that allows blind people to learn and use braille from the comfort of their palm. Team: Abenezer Ayana (junior, computer science)Amanda Baumgart (senior, entrepreneurship); Mahamud Hussein (sophomore, electrical engineering and physics); Brooke Catton (firstyear, mechanical engineering); Faiso Hirsi (junior, computer science). 

“I am so incredibly honored and excited that BraillEazy was chosen to move on to the Global Finals!” Baumgart said. “Our team is ready to expand our venture to the next level, and we can’t wait to see where this is going to take us. BraillEazy solves a problem of vital importance for the visually impaired community, and we are thankful for this incredible opportunity that will allow us to positively impact the world.” 

  • DigiConnections ($2,500 winneralso $1,000 for best presenter): DigiConnections is an internet service provider distributing TV Whitespace technology to rural communities in order to alleviate the digital divide and make internet as accessible, affordable and attainable as possible. DigiConnections distributes a new, innovative technology called TV Whitespace to rural residents using TV frequencies converted into internet connection to help improve lifestyles environmentally, educationally and economically. Team: Himani Joshi (firstyear, business management and administration); Brianna Kirk (first-year, marketing and entrepreneurship). 

“When Nana Yaa [Fowler competitions program manager] announced at the awards ceremony and our name came up for First Place and Best Presenter, we were beyond speechless and ecstatic!” Joshi said. “We are so grateful for the opportunity to further our business idea and shed some light on the growing digital divide which is currently impacting so many individuals and communities around the world. We would have been in a totally different place without the generosity and expertise of the University of St. Thomas and Ron and Alexis Fowler. Not to mention, the amazing connections we’ve made with other entrepreneurial people in the process.” 

Runner-up teams each took home $1,000. They include: 4Tennis (Brady Gruenhagen, first-year entrepreneurship and real estate major) and Bokashi Composting (Sophia Brown, senior biology major; Karl Buttel, senior biology major; Maggie Schmaltz, sophomore biology of global health major; Sinesipho Njeza, Cape Town community member; and Babauwa, Cape Town community member). Other competing teams were each given $500. 

Since the Global Social Innovation Challenge was established in 2011 by the University of San Diego it has inspired and supported social innovators around the world. In 2019, with the generous support of Ron and Alexis Fowler, the Challenge was renamed and a collaboration with the University of St. Thomas was launched. 

The University of San Diego will host the Fowler GSIC Global Finals virtually in June. The University of St. Thomas will host the Global Finals in summer 2021. This final round of the competition will be hosted on an alternating basis by both universities. 

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