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Professor's #HackHunger Pitch Provides Lessons, Idea to Help Homeless

By: Diane Stirling
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As a teacher of college students and a consultant to entrepreneurs for many years, Marcene Sonneborn, School of Information Studies (iSchool) assistant professor of practice, decided to undertake some experiential learning of the sort she imparts to students and startups.

 
  Marcene Sonneborn

In the course of her role at the Central New York Technology Development Organization, her years as a Syracuse University adjunct, and her position on the iSchool faculty, she’s been guiding company counters; teaching entrepreneurship, creativity, and ideation courses; and judging innovation competitions. But recently, Professor Sonneborn realized that she had never done something herself that she routinely asks students and startup founders to do: put together a pitch.

“I had been to startup weekends, and I teach students about pitching, but have never pitched anything myself,” she recognized.

So, Sonneborn took a pitch plunge.

At last weekend’s Syracuse #HungerHack, a civic hackathon organized to generate ideas and build products to fight homelessness and hunger, the professor seized the day. She thought, “All kinds of people are here. I’m just going to pitch this idea and see where it goes.” So, she  put the idea out there: speaking about how the sale of nutrition bars could provide an avenue for others to help homeless people. It was an idea inspired by her son’s practice of befriending and buying meals for the homeless while he was living in Oregon.

That pitch was a moment of serendipity—but not only for Sonneborn, who relished the experience, learned from it, and gained new insights for her teaching. In the audience was  hackathon panelist Maria Sweeney, an outreach coordinator to the homeless in the Syracuse region. Maria drew a connection—the nutrition bar could seed a mentored work program to help homeless people, via a non-profit organization she had been wanting to form, Sonneborn said. After the pitch, the pair talked. Two Syracuse University students, Laura Paolino and Emma McAnaw, joined in and offered their marketing skills. The four became a hackathon team.

For the next 24 intense hours, they refined the “Pathway To Work” program concept, defining  how nutrition bars could provide food, raise funds, create jobs, provide safe interactions for those who want to help, and educate communities about the issue of homelessness. They wrote a business plan, devised marketing venues, brainstormed community partnerships, and sourced a nutrition-bar manufacturer in the region. With help from Joanne Lenweaver, of Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, they created a logo. Then they built a website, including storytelling and social media elements to add participation and increase community understanding.   

Though they hadn’t built an app, device, or product, like many hackathon teams had, the four  believed they had founded a concept that was viable, could begin locally, and had potential as  a long-term, national initiative, according to Sonneborn. During the hackathon finale, the team showcased the concept by PowerPoint slidedeck to a receptive crowd.

Now, they are working to move the project forward. Professor Sonneborn achieved her goal of gaining firsthand experience pitching and working with a team in an intense, 24-hour exercise. She gained valuable lessons she will put to use in classes and with clients, she said, and was happy with her experience. “It was good for me to be on the pitching side. If I’m going to convince my students to do hackathons and startup weekends, I need to have sense of what it takes to get a team together and put it out there.”

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