At the Swearer Center, social entrepreneurs with ideas for improving communities can find the mentoring, training, and support that will help turn ideas into effective working organizations. Sixteen social Innovators recently celebrated their successful Social Innovation Fellowships.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When junior Manuel Contreras arrived at Brown in 2012 from his hometown of San Diego, he found himself with more questions than answers. The first-generation student, son of Mexican immigrants, didn’t know how to explain this new world on the other side of the country to his parents in English, let alone in their native Spanish. He struggled to make sense of his new life, how it fit in with his life in California, and how he could make the best use of his new position of privilege and responsibility to better his family and his community back home.

“I came to Brown and loved my time here but ran into issues that I didn’t understand and had never faced before and I felt very alone,” Contreras said.

Speaking to other first-generation students, Contreras realized that many of them were struggling with the same issues, not only at Brown, but at colleges across the country.

“I realized that a lot of schools were thinking about college access and how to get students into college, but the question was what happens after they walk through the gates?” Contreras said.

Manuel Contreras
“I realized that a lot of schools were thinking about college access and how to get students into college, but the question was what happens after they walk through the gates?”

What started out as a group independent study project to investigate these issues eventually turned into 1vyG, a nonprofit started by Contreras and two classmates, Stanley Stewart and Jessica Brown. They found the funding, advising, and support they needed through the Social Innovation Fellowship, a key program of the Social Innovation Initiative in the Swearer Center for Public Service. 1vyG aims to bring together first-generation students and college administrators, connect those students with resources, and create new resources so that they can be successful in their college experience.

Though in its early stages, 1vyG already has student working groups set up at colleges around the country and is currently planning a 300-person conference at Brown in February to discuss best practices for supporting first-generation students.

Contreras, his cofounders, and the 13 other students in this year’s cohort of Social Innovation Fellows celebrated their work at a ceremony Thursday night attended by Provost Vicki Leigh Colvin, Swearer Center faculty and staff, and other friends and mentors of the fellows.

For the fellows — Brown seniors and juniors, two RISD students, and two public affairs graduate students — the ceremony brought to a close a nearly 16-month journey of growing social ventures that started with an application process in the fall of 2013.

The Social Innovation Initiative works with students on the fellowships’s application process, offering workshops to help them hone their venture ideas and hear from past fellows about their experiences. Once accepted, each fellow receives up to $4,000 to develop their social ventures over the summer. They spend the spring and fall semesters attending weekly workshops and connecting with alumni and peer mentors. Fellows also have the option during the spring semester of taking a class at the Taubman Center called “Leading Social Ventures,” which puts much of what they are learning in the workshops into action.

They also spend significant time mapping out a plan for the 10 weeks over the summer when they will work independently on their projects. That work can include researching the issues that their venture aims to address and testing their business model to see if it’s sustainable and can make an impact. When they return to Brown in the fall, they continue to attend workshops and, in later months, begin mentoring the next class of fellows.

During his time as a fellow, Contreras was mentored by David Schwartz, a 2009 Brown graduate and founder of the national nonprofit Real Food Challenge, an experience he said provided his group with a a lot of practical knowledge.

“A lot of the structures that IvyG now has in place are a product of my conversations with (Schwartz).”

More broadly, Contreras found the workshops and the support of the Social Innovation Initiative staff to be invaluable in helping to grow his venture. “Having the wealth of resources, connecting with experts and people that really cared about our idea and were willing to help us grow really impacted 1vyG and helped shape it today.”

Launched in 2008, the Social Innovation Fellowship has served more than 100 students, with a cohort of 15 to 20 students taking part in the program each year.

Alan Harlam, director of innovation and social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center, said the goal of the fellowship program is to give the students a foundation so that they are able to continue with their ventures when they leave Brown, through both skill-building and networking with alumni and other community mentors. Workshops focus on everything from building a logic model to refine the student’s rationale for the business idea, to communications and elevator pitching.

Harlam said that about half of the fellows continue with their ventures after the summer work.

A new fellowship, announced at Thursday’s ceremony, aims to help students who continue with their projects. The Embark Fellowship will provide funding and support to graduating students, both Social Innovation Fellows and others, who are engaged in social entrepreneurship and want to continue that work after they leave Brown. Funds will come from the Social Innovation Initiative and through a crowd-funding platform open to entrepreneurs as part of their fellowship.

“Embark helps students who have reached a critical point in the development of their venture, where the support we offer allows them to become financially sustainable, creating jobs and impact in the community,” Harlam said.

Contreras, Stewart, and Brown plan to keep working on 1vyG even as the fellowship comes to an end. It’s not easy work, Contreras said, but it’s work worth doing.

“This work is hard and I had no conception about how hard it was going to be before entering into the fellowship. But being surrounded by other students who understand these challenges and are equally committed to innovative social change has kept me going and made our work possible.”

A list of the current class of fellows and their projects is available online.