Fostering sustainable businesses

W&L and the Lexington community come together for the third annual Social Innovation Initiative


Ellen Kanzinger

Photo by Ellen Kanzinger, ‘18.

Sutton Travis

By Sutton Travis

Washington and Lee students, faculty and alumni partnered with Lexington community members on April 29 to discuss ideas for creating a sustainable business model at the Blue Phoenix Café.

Known as the Social Innovation Initiative, the event grew out of business administration professor Drew Hess’ social entrepreneurship class upon his arrival at W&L three years ago.

Hess’ objective was to focus students’ social interests in organizations, like the Shepherd Program, and channel these interests into working to obtain business goals.

“When I started here, I noticed there are a ton of kids talking about doing things that are a little bit more socially-focused,” Hess said. “One of my interests was in creating a conversation around what we call market-driven solutions to social problems. Rather than looking for grants or raising money or asking for hand-outs, social entrepreneurship and social innovation are more about using customers and the marketplace to solve social issues.”

Each year, about two months prior to the event, Hess meets with a group of students to get a sense of their ideas for the year’s focus. The event, formerly called the Social Entrepreneurship Summit, was held the first two years at Hillel House.

This year, Maggie Ackell, ‘16, and Kiki Spiezio, ‘17, led a group of 15 to 16 students. The students suggested several changes, including modifying the name of the event to the Social Innovation Initiative and making it more community-focused.

Ackell said she wanted to concentrate on combining what students are learning in not only their classes, but also in their co-curriculars, like Campus Kitchen and the Bonner Program, to expand the Social Innovation Initiative to the Lexington community.

“All of those opportunities that we have on campus are so great, but now we have something productive that they can channel those little nuggets of knowledge into, actually creating good for a venture here in Lexington, which will hopefully be lasting for decades and decades to come,” Ackell said.

Another adjustment from previous years was to move the location off-campus, which Hess said he hoped would help make the event more community-centric.

“If our mission is to connect the university to the community, we can’t be so insular as to have our events in a university spot,” Hess said. “If that’s really our mission, then we should be in the space that we’re claiming to help, rather than sitting in a classroom, just talking about awesome ways to do it.”

Hess had originally intended for the event to be a round-table discussion about the former Healthy Foods Co-Op, located at 110 W. Washington St. When the Co-Op closed in December, the Blue Phoenix Café opened in the same location. Hess contacted owner Amenie Hopkins who said she would also be interested in hosting the event.

Besides supplying a vegetarian menu with food sourced from local farms, the Blue Phoenix Café operates on a “pay-what-you-can” system, where people who are unable to pay the full price are able to receive meals at a reduced cost.

Ackell said the goal of the Social Innovation Initiative is to discuss ways to incorporate students, faculty and community members’ ideas to ensure the café’s social focus is supported by a financially successful business model.

“My hope is that students can provide ideas to Blue Phoenix that they haven’t thought of before; really creative, out-of-the-box ideas that are actually tangible and can be reproduced in that space,” Ackell said. “I’m hoping that even if they don’t initially adopt any of those ideas, at least that gets the ball rolling and gets the conversation started about what is possible in that space.”

Next year, Hess hopes to begin a co-curricular club that would meet once or twice a semester to discuss the ideas of sustainable practices touched on by the Shepherd Program, with the addition of what Hess calls a “C-School twist,” or a focus on businesses’ roles.

Hess said that right now, he has been lucky to find individuals who are willing to take on all of this effort.

“But if I could build a group where this initiative was sort of their big moment, that would sort of be my long-term goal,” Hess said. “Rather than having a different conversation every year, we have a conversation that builds off last year’s conversation. That’s how I think progress will actually happen.”