Social Innovations Lab students jump into the Shark Tank: Pitches touch on Pottstown area concerns

The next group of new Hill and Pottstown PASIL participants will begin their think tank work after the summer, perhaps building on these ideas, or coming up with their own pursuits.

On Thursday, May 16, fourteen students from the Hobart’s Run-sponsored Pottstown Area Social Innovations Lab (PASIL) pitched six different ideas addressing Pottstown issues with hopes of benefitting our community. The group was comprised of students from The Hill School and Pottstown High School ranging in age from 15 to 18.

Their proposals were presented during a “shark tank” style event hosted at the Hobart’s Run office as the culmination of the seven-week PASIL program led by Twila Fisher, director of community and economic development for The Hill School and Hobart’s Run.

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Fisher kicked off the event with a short introduction to PASIL, which has been funded in part through a two-year grant from the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation. Fisher noted that the students worked on the projects in their after-school hours. The Hill students were participants in the School’s afternoon community service program, and the Pottstown students were invited through an online application shared with the community.

Among the audience of 25 invited community leaders, seven judges took their seats at the front to score each presentation in five categories. Each project required a preliminary budget and a specific “ask,” and no pitch could last longer than five minutes.

The judging was based on categories including mission statement, social innovation (or how well the project would creatively address a social need), the governance structure of the proposed entity, budget, and the effectiveness or “salability” of the speeches and PowerPoint presentations. The judges also put the students on the spot by peppering them with questions.

While all the teams earned the respect of the spectators, the top-ranked project proposed an online small business directory for Borough restaurants, retail shops, entertainment spaces, and job listings. Shuyi Jin, the team leader and presenter and a sixth form/senior Hill student from China, shared how difficult it was for both him and his parents to find stores and restaurants when they first came to Pottstown four years ago. As Pottstown continues its path to revitalization, having a “one-stop shop” online presence for local businesses would be mutually helpful.

The second-highest scoring project was “Dilanto,” an e-commerce site created to bring money into the Hobart’s Run programming budget — with all funds then flowing back into the community through Hobart’s Run’s façade improvement program, block cleanups, and streetscape improvements.

Taking third place was the “Pottstown Food Co-op,” a small business idea that would offer affordable access to locally grown fruits and vegetables for residents in the area of the 400 block of E. High Street.

Other team projects included a survey that will serve as a resource for local groups dedicated to meeting demand for better transportation; a children’s art project at the Olivet BGC/Ricketts Center; and “Mindset,” a student-led, college counseling and essay-writing program for high school juniors applying to college.

The seven judges came from various professional backgrounds, all with a shared interest in Pottstown.  Hobart’s Run thanks Dan Price, director of Mosaic Community Land Trust Gardens; Dr. Elliot Menkowitz, retired orthopedic surgeon, real estate investor and entrepreneur; Heather Gelting, human resource director for The Hill School; Howard Brown, program officer for the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation; Keith Costello, senior IT Manager for IBM and a Pottstown residential and commercial real estate developer; Ken Trusty, camp manager for the YWCA; and Mike Vaughan, finance and business consultant and the former COO of Venmo (and a Hill graduate, class of 1993).

“Cities across the globe have integrated social innovations labs into their urban fabric, often with measurable results,” Fisher said. “As Pottstown continues to find resourceful methods to help it rebuild, making room for a think tank-style lab made sense here, too.”

The next group of new Hill and Pottstown PASIL participants will begin their think tank work after the summer, perhaps building on these ideas, or coming up with their own pursuits.

“It was great to see the variety of ideas that came out of this cohort,” Fisher said. “The focus was more on social impact than small business — and all of them were passionately directed toward contributing something lasting to a town they love: Pottstown,” said Fisher.

She welcomes feedback from Pottstown’s entrepreneurs and investors – not to mention financial backing and other insights and support — for any of the ideas presented.

Fisher has worked with The Hill School to design curriculum for an Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise elective course that will be offered at the School in the upcoming academic year (2019-2020). Fisher will teach the course with strong support from Michael Vaughan and several notable Hill alumni from the business and social impact worlds. With this elective in place as a prototype, Fisher will work with Montgomery County Community College and Pottstown High School to create similar courses that future PASIL participants can take for credit.

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