A Program for Budding Social Entrepreneurs in Need of a Mission

Anne Field | May 1, 2017


There is no shortage of accelerators, incubators and co-working spaces geared towards social entrepreneurs. But what about the person who wants to use a for-profit business model to do something that matters—and doesn’t quite have the right idea yet? There’s not much available for those pre-idea individuals.

A new pilot project aims to fill that gap. Called the Venture Founders Program, it’s part of the Engineering, Science & Technology Entrepreneurship Excellence Program (ESTEEM), an entrepreneurship masters program at the University of Notre Dame.

Its founders hope to spin the program out into a separate enterprise called Invanti.

“How do you take talented potential impact entrepreneurs and give them access to resources, as well as the opportunity to do research and work through different ideas that align profit with impact?” asks Maria Gibbs, a civil engineering student at Notre Dame who cofounded the program along with Notre Dame grad Dustin Mix. “That’s what we’re trying to do.

Launched in July 2016, the 10-month Venture Founders Program matches seven entrepreneurial-minded students with specific social and environmental challenges—think digital literacy or antibiotic resistance—using a structured process combining systems mapping, design thinking and other approaches. The goal is for students to come up with an idea for a venture that could have both impact and profit-making legs, recognizing that it may take five or six concepts before they hit on something with real potential.

One promising idea: student Madeline Zupana’s concept for addressing unemployment and the skills gap in manufacturing. That would involve working with manufacturers to pinpoint the skills they need and then finding students who, with the right training, could do those jobs.  Another student, Eva-Marie Costello has gone past the idea stage to form a company called Fintus, which has an app that instructs digitally illiterate users through the basic functions of mobile banking.

The plan is to roll the program out of the university and turn it into its own venture, to be called Invanti. That project is still in the early stages, says Gibbs. But the basic concept would be to help aspiring social entrepreneurs come up with ideas and get to the stage where they’re ready to apply for an accelerator or start talking to angel investors.

Eva-Marie Costello, Dustin Mix, Maria Gibbs and Madeline Zupan of the Venture Founders Program (Photo credit: ESTEEM)

The first cohort probably will be about six months long–enough time to think of and refine an idea–though that’s not set in stone. “We’d help them generate ideas and then send them off into the rest of the ecosystem for further support,” says Mix.

They figure that applicants will come from three buckets: generalists, like, say, a management consultant who enjoys problem solving; experts in such sectors as finance; and technologists.

Gibbs is finishing up her degree in civil engineering at Notre Dame, while Mix has degrees in civil engineering and entrepreneurship from that university. He also spent two years  in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. While working together at the entrepreneurship program, they came to the realization that there was a gap out there in programs for pre-idea social entrepreneurs.

As part of the current pilot, they met early on with community leaders in South Bend, Indiana, where Notre Dame is located, to discuss what they saw as persistent problems facing the region. That long list included everything from transportation to the cost of daycare. They returned to the university and listed all the problems on a white board, and invited students to dig into an issue. Eventually, they pitch their ideas to a steering committee to get feedback.

And, if all goes well, new social enterprises are born.

Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. A version of this article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on


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