Street Talk

Street Talk: The $1 million question

White-glove test.

December 18, 2015
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A team of Grand Valley State University students and alumni is competing to change the world with their ideas and win $1 million in the process.

The Hult Prize Challenge is the largest international social innovation competition for young entrepreneurs. The annual competition, which is organized by the Hult Prize Foundation, aims to create and launch the most compelling social business ideas — startup enterprises that tackle grave issues faced by billions of people.

Participants form small startup companies to compete for $1 million in funding while working to solve the planet’s toughest challenges. Winners also receive mentorship and advice from the international business community.

The theme of this year’s competition is “crowded urban spaces.”

During a quarterfinals competition Dec. 10 at Grand Valley, 10 teams comprised of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni competed for a chance to advance to one of several regional finals taking place in 2016.

The winning Grand Valley team consisted of Kathryn Christopher, product design and manufacturing engineering graduate student; Joseph Kissling, mechanical engineering graduate student; Briauna Taylor, nursing practice doctoral candidate; and Brittany Taylor, finance and management major.

The team pitched its Platform for Progress, an effort that would help provide mass communication and resource sharing, as well as education and training, to overpopulated and underserved communities.

Christopher said the platform would use text messaging as a way for these populations to receive information about entrepreneurial workshops and training sessions that would focus on teaching people how to provide basic necessities, such as water, shelter and food, to help their communities while also creating income.

“If Platform for Progress can provide training and education on how to construct a sand filter and sell the clean water from it, for example, we can then provide the individuals a microloan for the materials they will need to construct the sand filter,” Christopher said.

“That person can then sell the clean water, generating income for themselves, as well as sell water to their neighbors at a price lower than what they would normally pay.”

The GVSU team will travel to Boston for the regional competition March 11-12.

Regional competition winners will go on to present their final pitch at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting and the Hult Prize Global Finals and Awards Ceremony in New York City in September.

Keeping warm

For the past month, Spencer Blanchard has been walking around the city and stopping strangers on the street to ask them: “What does a warm coat mean to you?”

Most people are more than happy to answer the question, he said, and let him take a picture of them.

“A warm coat isn't just an article of clothing,” a woman told him. “It's a symbol. It's security, warmth — and I’d even call it belonging. To me, that means survival.”

“It’s a sense of safety and security in the winter because it’s cold. Especially in West Michigan because it’s really cold,” one man said. “A warm coat represents being safe in the winter.”

After this initial question, Blanchard usually follows up with another question: “Have you ever had to go a winter without a warm coat?”

Not many people have had that experience.

Finally, Blanchard asks a third question: “How does it make you feel that people in West Michigan are going without a warm coat this winter?”

That’s the question that interests him most.

Blanchard has been doing these interviews as part of a mission to ensure that no one in Grand Rapids goes without a warm coat this winter.

The initiative, put on through downtown shelter Guiding Light Mission, is aptly named KeepGRWarm. Its goal is to collect winter coats for those in need, Blanchard said, calling it a modernized version of a coat drive that has its own website and Facebook page. There’s even a hashtag to follow: #KeepGRWarm.

Both the KeepGRWarm website and Facebook page are filled with Blanchard’s on-the-spot interviews and offer ways people in the community can either donate winter coats or the money to buy them. Givers can stop by Guiding Light, 255 S. Division Ave., to drop coats off, or they can go online to and make a financial donation. Each coat is $25.

“I was working with Guiding Light on email and social media pointers, and they were brainstorming some ideas on how to get people involved and make people aware that men, women and children in West Michigan need coats every year,” Blanchard said.

“I said, ‘I’ll (throw) some creative power behind it and come up with something that will raise awareness and be fun for the community to see.”

Blanchard is no stranger to raising social awareness. He’s the founder of both The Tillery and UnlockingGR, and works as director of digital marketing at the Start Garden-funded startup OXX.

He put up the KeepGRWarm website and social media as part of a soft launch in late November.

The interviews are a new way of raising awareness about the need in the community for warm winter coats, he said. He’s already conducted nearly 30 interviews.

“One of the big things is we want to be authentic. I think a lot of young people can see through facades. We could take pictures of people giving coats through churches, and that’s fine and it feels good, but we want West Michigan to really (feel involved),” he said.

KeepGRWarm’s work will end “when it gets warm,” he said, although he’s interested in making it an annual mission.

“This isn’t just for the homeless. It’s for anyone who can’t afford a coat,” he said.

Dueling legislation

With all the hubbub in the Michigan Legislature last week about the Switch SuperNAP data center at the former Steelcase Pyramid, Gov. Rick Snyder snuck in and eliminated some peculiar laws.

While dueling with your neighbor after trampling a blackberry bush and swearing in front of the neighbor’s children is probably still frowned upon, jail time isn’t in your future, at least for those specific infractions.

“Modernizing state government is an ongoing effort,” Snyder said. “I appreciate the work of the legislature in analyzing the criminal code and eliminating statutes that no longer make sense in the 21st century.”

Such as?

Well, Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, represented one of the bills, which repealed six crimes related to dueling and refusing to fight a forest fire. His bill, now Public Act 210, also included cursing in front of women and children and playing the national anthem out of tune as items no longer punishable by jail time in Michigan.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, sponsored a bill that repeals a misdemeanor charge to promote, conduct or participate in “endurance contests.”

Apparently, all of those Susan B. Komen Walk for the Cures have been illegal.

Other public acts in this chain of legislation include a change from criminal penalties to a civil infraction for those who fail to post a registration card while camping on DNR land.

These, and several more “archaic” and redundant laws, were identified as part of Snyder’s Special Message on Criminal Justice in May.

We’ll grab a pair of white gloves, just in case.

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