Care, Rigor, and Excellence

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Care, Rigor, and Excellence

Social Innovation at CUBE

by Tom Griffen 

I’ve been to the Campus YMCA a few times before but never have seen it bustling like it was on the morning of my recent visit. A snaking line of excited students led to the counter of a small café - one whose existence in the hall took me off guard. The comforting hum of the growing crowd drowned out the whir of an espresso machine. The entryway was hopping.

I had gone there to meet Laura Fieselman, Program Coordinator for CUBE, UNC’s social innovation initiative. Though I was anxious to meet Laura and learn about CUBE’s mission, I was also looking forward to grabbing an espresso after we wrapped up.

Three floors up, CUBE reminded me of a co-working space and Laura assured me it functions similarly. She said that its placement in the Campus Y is not an accident. CUBE’s mission—to provide space and services for student and faculty entrepreneurs focused on social change—resonates strongly with the Y’s 150-year tradition of championing human and civil rights.

In 2010, then-Chancellor Holden Thorp launched Innovate@Carolina which positioned UNC as a world leader in social innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2012, CUBE, supported primarily by the Keenan Charitable Trust, was launched as the campus incubator for businesses and nonprofits with a social mission.

“Holden Thorp believed innovation was a key path for the university,” Laura said. “He put the infrastructure in place.”

CUBE’s support services include seed funding and elite coaching, including seven mentors-in-residence and two staff social-entrepreneurs-in-residence. Teams participate in one-on-ones and guest lectures while getting familiar with the vast network of local connections available to help grow their social venture.

“Our vision is to help teams take an idea and turn it into a real life thing that can live in the world,” Laura said.

And Laura knows all about creating a social venture that can live in the world. She is one of four co-founders of the Raleigh City Farm, a Triangle-based nonprofit that grows urban farms and farm entrepreneurs to strengthen sustainable, healthy food systems. An organization that continues to thrive today.

Laura’s long personal history with nonprofits and sustainability (both domestic and international) makes her a lucky find for CUBE and its start-ups.

“We bring care, rigor, and excellence to socially-minded businesses,” she said. “And with a critical mass of social entrepreneurship we learn from each other and lift each other up.”

So far CUBE has worked with three cohort groups. Of their fourteen current teams, half are led by undergrads, half are led by women, and half are led by people of color.

Laura believes that North Carolina is uniquely positioned for CUBE.

“It’s not the most rural or under-resourced state, yet it has a lot of needs,” she said. “And with needs come opportunities.”

One current venture, Solar Head of State (SHoS), is a nonprofit whose mission is to put solar panels on government buildings around the world. Already participating—St. Lucia, Jamaica, and Mongolia.

Another venture, So Good Papusas, was created after its founder, Cecilia Polanco, noticed that her friends were being denied academic scholarships because they were not US citizens. Her El Salvadorian food truck directs profits towards supporting education equality.

Turns out the popular café in the lobby, The Meantime, is also a venture. It is student-owned and operated and committed to serving ethically-sourced coffee and products. The Meantime is structured as a nonprofit and offers student scholarships.

Eventually I left the CUBE offices and headed downstairs where I ordered a double espresso. My motivation to do so suddenly enhanced by the fact that my caffeinated indulgence might help someone go to college.