Defending the Dolphins

People love dolphins, but if they truly cared about these highly intelligent and sociable seafarers, they’d admire them from a distance. Just ask Alex Prots, a biology major at Sullivan Foundation partner school Oglethorpe University.

Prots’ assistance with faculty-led research on spinner dolphins and conservation policy has taken her to the coasts of Hawaii over the past two years. There, she learned that spinner dolphins—famous for their acrobatic displays and soaring, twisting leaps above the waves—were being treated poorly by tourists.

“We noticed very low levels of enforcement of existing laws and regulations in several bays,” Prots said. “In one bay, the only indication of regulations pertaining to wildlife and dolphins in the area was a single sticker. It was placed high on a pole and covered by other stickers.”

Reading the Signs
Spinner dolphins deserve better than that. A species that can be found in warm ocean waters worldwide, the populations living around the Hawaiian Islands tend to spend more time near the shore and are more social with humans and boats. But interactions with humans can change dolphin behavior for the worse—they lose their natural wariness, which makes them easy targets for predators and prone to getting injured by swimming too close to churning boat propellers or becoming tangled up with fishing lines and hooks.

That’s what brought Prots to Hawaii. As part of the research process, she helped conduct an onsite survey of visitors to three bays in the area. The results confirmed what Prots suspected: People visit the bays specifically to see dolphins and other wildlife. But most don’t know the difference between mere suggestions and laws when they’re interacting with wildlife.

Prots believes the lack of exposure to federal and state regulations on human-wildlife interaction has contributed to the public’s confusion. But she thinks most people would read signage about the regulations if it was readily available—and that they would adjust their behavior accordingly. “The signage could be a sustainable alternative to increasing enforcement personnel,” Prots added. “It’s also an alternative to stricter policy that could potentially close the bays completely to visitors.”

photo of alex prots, a dolphin researcher at Oglethorpe University

Alex Prots, a biology major at Oglethorpe University, believes tourists can be dissuaded from harassing dolphins with proper signage that explains wildlife regulations.

The long-term goal of the research project is to present findings to lawmakers, along with recommended signage format, and to effect change in policy, Prots said. One of the bays has existing signage that could be replicated elsewhere, potentially making the recommendation even more feasible for lawmakers to implement. Sponsorship of signage is also important, she believes, to help encourage change in behavior. “What organizations do people trust?” she asks. “Our hope would be that federal and state agencies, along with a nonprofit, would sponsor the signage.”

Preventing Irreversible Damage
Originally a pre-med student, Prots got into conservation quite by accident when she enrolled in the conservation biology course that first took her to Hawaii in early 2018. The biology elective takes a small group of students to Hawaii for two weeks during winter break. The course includes field work, lectures and hands-on learning opportunities focused on both terrestrial and marine species in the area. “Through this class, I learned how wildlife was being treated, and it sparked my interest,” said Prots, who returned to Hawaii just months later to conduct the focused research.

“The love for the environment, love for the outdoors, love for nature—those things have always been in me, but the class really brought those interests out,” she added. “The tourists and mainland visitors unintentionally destroying some of this habitat—it was always something I expected people to have more respect for. A lot of what I saw pushed me to want to help out. I knew if this was happening in Hawaii, it was happening in a lot of other places too.”

Prots had been scheduled to present her research findings to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Bozeman, Montana, in March, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In her application, she summarized her research and its aims: “Our overall goal … is to encourage, if not pressure, stronger conservation policy and increase funding for educational signs that inform people on appropriate behavior before the damage done to these dolphins is irreversible and we see yet another species go extinct due to human negligence.”

Meanwhile, the former pre-med student has a new career track. “After graduation, I would like to stay in the Atlanta area and work. I would love to work in an urban setting after having worked in coastal environments,” she said. “Ultimately, I want to go to graduate school. Conservation has a whole umbrella of topics that would interest me, so I need to look at what specific area I’d want to study and pursue.”

This article has been adapted from two press releases appearing on the Oglethorpe University website.

Helping Hands

As the coronavirus pandemic brought the American economy to a screeching halt and threw millions out of work this spring, two questions weighed heavily on the minds of educators and students throughout the Sullivan Foundation’s network of partner schools: When will things get back to normal, and what will “normal” look like? Seemingly overnight, their world had been turned upside down. Classrooms and dorms were emptied. Professors scrambled to wrap up their courses online with half a semester still to go. Cash-strapped institutions grappled with unprecedented financial challenges as tax revenues fell off a cliff. Campuses turned into ghost towns, and their surrounding communities—dependent on students to support local businesses—felt the losses just as keenly.

Suddenly, the future, always unknowable, felt unthinkable. There was only one thing to do: get out into these struggling communities, size up the problems and start solving them. In towns and cities across the South, Sullivan schools and their servant leaders have stepped up to help, launching initiatives to combat food insecurity, support frontline healthcare workers and provide services for the most vulnerable populations.

Feeding the Need
At Mary Baldwin University (MBU) in Staunton, Va., President Pamela Fox made the difficult decision to suspend in-seat classes and shift to online study on March 13. By March 24, most students had gone home. But Kerry Mills, an assistant professor of art history and MBU Online advisor, stayed busy as a volunteer with Underground Kitchen, bringing free food—including artisanal soups and breads prepared by local chefs—to families in need around Richmond.

Kerry Mills of Mary Baldwin University makes a food delivery for Underground Kitchen.

Mills makes deliveries twice a week to about a dozen residences while practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. “Good food is something I am passionate about, and food insecurity has always been an important issue for me,” she said. “With the pandemic, more people—whether shut in at home, at work in a hospital, or on a limited budget due to job loss—are facing issues of access to a nutritious meal, so this seemed like a project I could get behind.”

MBU students were quick to get involved, too. Fouzia Ishtiaq, an MBU Online student, coordinated volunteers to cook and provide meals to the elderly through her own nonprofit organization. Josh Smith, another MBU Online student, opened a daycare for the children of first responders and healthcare professionals in Henrico County.

In the Charlottesville, Va. area, where one in six people were coping with food insecurity before the pandemic, University of Virginia (UVA) campus leaders like Brooke Ray stepped forward to help. In addition to serving as the operations manager at UVA’s Global Policy Center, Ray is a member of the planning team for Cultivate Charlottesville’s Food Justice Network, a collective of community organizations focused on racial equity, health and food security. “Nonprofits and grassroots groups in our network have seen an increase in demand for services while they have also had to pivot to helping people shelter in place, often relying on volunteers and facing supply shortages,” Ray said. “Many of our community members were already struggling and are now facing even more acute concerns and, with new unemployment issues, others are emerging in need of support.”

Rosa Key is a volunteer with Cultivate Charlottesville.

To meet these growing needs, the Global Policy Center and the UVA Equity Center have been providing logistical and financial support to the Food Justice Network and other community groups. Their work supports organizations like the PB&J Fund, which provides 300-plus bagged meals each Friday to families in need, and the Local Food Hub, a nonprofit that partners with farmers to get fresh, locally grown produce into more neighborhoods.

Shantell Bingham, community director at the UVA Equity Center and program director for the Food Justice Network, said it’s crucial to get local citizens involved in these programs to ensure equitable distribution of services to vulnerable populations. “We have to set up programs that are driven by community members and to get people who are living these issues day in and day out [to] the table,” she said. “We want to talk with people about what best meets their needs and how we can set up food delivery, for example, to meet those needs.”

Bolstering the Front Line
Alumni from Davidson College and the University of Kentucky (UK) identified another unmet need—two, actually—in their communities. In response, they organized chapters of a nonprofit called Feed the Front Line (FTFL) to fulfill a twofold mission: deliver free meals to healthcare workers fighting the pandemic while generating revenue for local restaurants struggling to stay afloat as customers sheltered at home.

With chapters in cities nationwide, FTFL purchases bulk meal orders from local eateries, and volunteers deliver the meals to hospitals, testing sites and other healthcare locations. The result is a two-sided impact for every dollar raised—cash-starved restaurants receive 100 percent of the proceeds, while stressed-out frontline workers get their spirits boosted during long, exhausting shifts.

this photo shows a group of women from Davidson College in masks for Feed the Front Line

Alumni of Davidson College formed a chapter of the national nonprofit Feed the Front Line to feed hospital workers while also supporting local restaurants.

“We saw a need and wanted to meet that need,” said John Stein, a 2019 graduate of UK. “We believe many people feel that same desire to help in any way possible. One of the most powerful things is seeing how people rally behind the cause for the common good.”

Jean-Ann Washam, executive director of Carson-Newman University’s Appalachian Outreach Ministry, has also seen a surge in generosity to match rising demand for services around Jefferson City, Tenn.  Her organization operates the Samaritan House, which helps families who are experiencing a housing crisis, as well as a food distribution ministry. “We’ve had a really good community response,” she said. “We’ve had people recognize that we need additional food because we have new families [using Samaritan House services]. They’ve bought food and given monetary donations.”

Taking care of people in need during a pandemic puts Appalachian Outreach volunteers at risk themselves, Washam noted. But they keep showing up anyway. “Despite their own health concerns, our volunteers understand that there are people who would not have food if they were not here,” she added. “I think in the middle of a crisis, this is just affirmation that this is a community that works together in good times and bad. We just pull together.”

This article contains information and quotes compiled from several press releases issued by Sullivan partner schools.

Marathon Man

By Rick Hynum

Josh Nadzam, recipient of the 2012 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at the University of Kentucky, has never been the kind of person who runs away from problems—he runs toward them, always looking to help. Raised by a hard-working single mother in housing projects near Pittsburgh, Nadzam used his smarts and skills as a scholar-athlete to escape grinding poverty, winning a full scholarship with the Wildcats’ track and field team and becoming one of the top milers in the SEC.

Today, Nadzam, a past facilitator of the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreats, is the driving force behind a Lexington, Kentucky social enterprise called On the Move Art Studio, a mobile art room housed in a refurbished trailer that travels to underserved neighborhoods and hosts free arts classes for at-risk youth. The organization has served more than 10,000 children since it started.

“First and foremost, art improves self-esteem,” Nadzam said. “When you attempt an art project that at first you don’t think you can do, but you complete it, I see very visibly the self-esteem boost that kids have. Kids think, ‘I did that,’ and they feel better.”

“Self-efficacy is another big one we’re focusing on,” he added. “With a lot of the kids, their immediate reaction is, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I’m bad, I’m terrible.’ This shows them that not only can you do an art project, you can do anything you set your mind to.”

this photo shows Josh Nadzam with a Black Lives Matter sign prior to the Run for Black Lives fundraiser

Josh Nadzam said he wants to be an ally with the Black Lives Matter movement, “fight for social justice and make our country welcoming and fair for all Americans.”

Running for Black Lives
Still, Nadzam knows the children of color he works with face an uncertain future in a culture that has been crying out for social justice reforms for decades. That’s why he recently jumped at the chance to serve as an ally with the Black Lives Matter movement while putting his running skills to good use.

To raise money for the Kentucky NAACP, Nadzam organized the Run for Black Lives, a 26-mile marathon from Lexington to Frankfort, Kentucky, on June 19. Supporters donated a dollar amount per mile, with 130 people generating more than $7,000. The fundraiser spawned headlines, too, including coverage from two local TV stations and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“Racism, discrimination and the injustices experienced by black Americans are completely unacceptable, and I want to do everything I can to play my role in dismantling the systemic structures that perpetuate these issues,” Nadzam said. “I want to be an ally, fight for social justice, and make our country welcoming and fair for all Americans. I’m always trying to think of various ways I can effect change, so in addition to policy changes, protests and other forms of activism, I believe each one of us has a set of skills we can use to contribute to the cause. Mine happens to be running. So I thought I could raise awareness for this issue and also raise funds for an organization that is constantly fighting this battle by running from my home city to our capitol in Kentucky.”

this photo shows Josh Nadzam at a Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat event

Nadzam is an Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient and a popular presenter at the Sullivan Foundation’s twice-yearly Ignite Retreats for young social entrepreneurs and changemakers. (Photo by Amber Merklinger, Amber Faith Photography)

The expression “Black Lives Matter” has been widely misinterpreted—and misrepresented—in the past, but more Americans of all races have embraced it in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed during an arrest by police in Minneapolis on May 25.  Already upset over earlier police-related killings of young African-Americans—including Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky—hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest racism and harsh police methods in cities across the U.S.

“To me, (‘Black Lives Matter’) is an expression that the black community feels like their lives do not matter as much as other lives,” Nadzam said. “It’s a rallying cry to draw attention to deep, systematic issues that have existed for centuries. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘An injustice to one is an injustice to all.’ So, while I’ll never be able to relate to what it is like to be black in America, if anyone hurts in America, I hurt, too. Their pain is my pain. We’re all in this together, so I won’t rest until we fix this.”

Nadzam also offered advice for white Americans who want to join him as allies with the black community. “I think what we all need to do as effective allies is to listen, be humble, approach these situations without defensiveness, and recognize as white people that we have privileges that allow us to navigate America in a much different and safer way than people of color,” he said.

“Also, this fight is a marathon, not a sprint,” Nadzam added. “While it is ‘trending’ right now, this issue is going to take decades to resolve. We need everyone to get engaged and stay engaged long after this conversation fades away from the national spotlight.”

An Army of Peacemakers

By Owen Covington, Elon University

In developing countries ranging from Paraguay and Ukraine to the Ivory Coast and Papua New Guinea, the U.S. dispatches a veritable “army” of servant leaders every year to promote economic and social development. They’re known collectively as the Peace Corps, and many of these volunteers get their start at Sullivan Foundation partner school Elon University.

In fact, Elon has been repeatedly recognized as one of the country’s top producers of Peace Corps volunteers. Elon ranked No. 25 in the U.S. for the number of Peace Corps volunteers it produced in 2019, with 16 Elon alumni volunteering in countries around the world.

The Spring 2020 semester saw an additional 16 students complete Elon’s Peace Corps Prep Program, which prepares students for international service through mentoring, coursework and field experiences. Students develop four competencies—training and experience in a specific work sector; foreign language proficiency; intercultural competency; and professional leadership and development skills. The program expanded in 2019 to cover all six Peace Corps service areas: Agriculture, Community Economic Development, Education, Environment, Health and Youth in Development.

A volunteer program run by the federal government, the Peace Corps enables participants to go abroad for at least two years to serve in a variety of roles in government, education and service. Elon’s prep program, headed by Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Eidum, helps prepare students for volunteering in the Peace Corps or working in a variety of other service opportunities.

“The values of the Peace Corps Prep program feel especially important at the current moment, emphasizing intercultural competence, serving one’s community, and being a citizen of the world,” Eidum says. “We are especially proud of our recent graduates who are finding myriad pathways to service in the uncertainty of a global pandemic.”

Chloe Hultman, a student in Elon University’s Peace Corps Prep program, is considering joining the Peace Corps but first plans to work for a nonprofit that serves the homeless.

‘An Incredible Experience’
Chloe Hultman is one of them. She completed many of the requirements for certification while studying in Cape Town, South Africa through the Service-Learning Project experiential learning course. She completed 120 service hours while in South Africa, including interning at the local nongovernment organization Call2Care. Within the organization, she worked with a local orphanage, a youth empowerment program and an after-school program. “We fostered leadership and development of the children we worked with,” Hultman says. “For example, I helped design the curriculum for the after-school program to be intellectually, physically and emotionally engaging and enriching. … This was an incredible experience that I will never forget!”

Hultman is considering applying for the Peace Corps in several years. Following graduation, she planned to work in San Diego with Father Joe’s Villages, a nonprofit dedicated to providing housing and supportive services to individuals experiencing homelessness.

Laura Braley said her work in Elon University’s Peace Corps Prep Program helped her apply to the U.S. Peace Corps with confidence.

Elon senior Laura Braley said her work in the Peace Corps Prep Program made it possible for her to apply to the organization with confidence. It’s a path she had not considered entering her senior year, but one she headed down after realizing she wanted to “go somewhere interesting and do something meaningful” after she graduated.

Braley hopes to begin teaching English and life skills to primary school students in Lesotho, Africa, with the Peace Corps in September. “Elon’s Peace Corps Prep Program introduced me to coursework that I have a passion for,” Braley says.

Lallo Yadeta, a senior at Elon University, believes her Peace Corps Prep Program experience made her a better candidate for the jobs she plans to pursue after graduation.

Not all who pursue certification have their sights set on entering the Peace Corps. Lallo Yadeta, also a senior at Elon, completed the program and will spend the next year as an Elon Service-Year Graduate Fellow working with Alamance Achieves to improve educational outcomes for local students. “The Peace Corps Prep Program has allowed me to create an Elon experience that was cohesive to my passions and goals,” Yadeta says. “It encouraged me to take courses that followed a common, but not restrictive, theme, ultimately making me a better candidate for many of the positions I am looking to pursue in the future. The program also allowed me to connect with many mentors in the field of international service and fellow students with like-minded interests, exposing me to incredible opportunities and advice.”

Kathryn Noon, meanwhile, completed the program at the close of her junior year, and is confident that service will be a component of her future endeavors. “I felt like the program established a strong foundation to guide my classes and internship experiences,” Noon said. “That being said, I also found that each of the criteria included components I was passionate about—engaging with my community, global health courses, [and] challenging myself professionally.”

Period Power

As founders of a new social enterprise called SEED., Mackenzie Syiem and Grace Gehlken, both students at Sullivan Foundation partner school Wofford College, put a lot of thought into everything they do—including the placement of that seemingly incongruous period at the end of their company’s name.

It’s definitely not a typo.

The two young women—Syiem is a freshman and Gehlken a sophomore—are part of the growing menstrual equity movement, aimed at ensuring that girls and women around the world have access to the feminine hygiene products they need without stigma and without giving up their basic human rights. Period.

Syiem, who hails from Shillong, Meghalaya, India, and Gehlken, from Charleston, S.C., partnered up after meeting through Wofford’s Launch program, which supports students in establishing business ventures. Their goal: to create a social-impact business that helps artisans and craftspeople sell their products—such as jewelry, artwork and bags—internationally, with profits going to support the programs and people the founders care about. They also hope to help impoverished communities bootstrap their way to economic success.

Mackenzie Syiem, co-founder of SEED.

Fighting Stigma of Menstruation
As a high schooler, Gehlken developed an interest in sustainable community development and economic empowerment. Syiem, too, was still in high school when she became passionate about menstrual equity after watching the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Period. End of Sentence.” The film explored the stigma surrounding menstruation in India and a group of women who make and sell their own low-cost sanitary pads.

“Watching that really clicked a lot of things in my life together,” Syiem reflected. “It verbalized for the first time this strange and unpleasant experience I had had my whole life of being shamed for a natural body process. Growing up in India, I saw firsthand how negatively menstruation was viewed and how women had to suffer from this shame, all because of a lack of proper education on the subject. This cause is very important to Grace and me because that experience isn’t isolated to India. There is a global problem surrounding menstrual equity that needs to be fixed because no girl deserves to miss school because she doesn’t have the resources or feel ashamed of something that is so incredibly natural.”

As global citizens and travelers, Syiem and Gehlken feel confident they can build connections in developing countries and build the network of suppliers they need for SEED.. “Our partners are both the artisans that we want to procure products from and the organizations and community leaders we want to work with to support social programs in those places,” Syiem said. “We find partners through our travels, research and mutual connections. Honduras and Tanzania are both places that Grace has been to and made connections in. She’s been traveling to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, every year since seventh grade. I have connections in India since that’s where I was born and raised. We’re always excited to travel to new places and find even more communities that we can work with!”

SEED. co-founder Grace Gehlken and her mother pose with the social enterprise’s second product, Bloom Bracelets.

“We are very intentional when we choose our partners,” Syiem added. “We want to make sure our partners are dedicated to making true change. Our artisan partners will benefit from the work opportunities, and the organizations we partner with will benefit from our support financially. We will also work to highlight both the artisans and the organizations and make sure our customers know where and how they are making an impact.”

No Instruction Manual
SEED. will initially focus on selling its partners’ products on the company website (, but Syiem and Gehlken will also look for direct sales opportunities with farmers markets, boutique shops and other retailers. To raise money, SEED. marketed handcrafted “Dare to Dream” earrings created by a Spartanburg, S.C. jeweler—and quickly sold out. They followed up in May with their second product—handcrafted Bloom Bracelets—and donated a portion of the profits to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. They will also hold more fundraisers while applying for grants to support the business.

Meanwhile, Syiem got a confidence boost from attending the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2019 Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip to Raleigh, N.C. “I got to meet amazing entrepreneurs who had created powerful social ventures and hear directly from them about their experiences,” she recalled. “That trip inspired me and helped me feel like I could do the same thing that all those amazing founders had done as long as I had the passion and was willing to put in the work.”

“The greatest lesson I got from that trip was to just do it,” Syiem said. “There’s no real instruction manual to starting a business. So much of the experience is figuring out things for yourself and doing what works best for you. There’s always help when you need it, and you should never feel hesitant about reaching out for that help. But you can’t get that help if you don’t start in the first place. So, I’m very grateful for Sullivan and that trip. It empowered me and made me feel like what I had to offer was worth offering.”

From Trash to Treasure

By Rick Hynum

Before you toss that old wine bottle or cardboard box in the trash, give it a second look: Just because it’s empty doesn’t mean it has served its only purpose. For Bella Almeida, a student at Duke University and founder of Earthy Creations, many discarded items have the potential to become amazing sustainable art—and to make money for the artists themselves.

Almeida, who majors in Public Policy and minors in Chinese, attended the Sullivan Foundation’s study-abroad program in Prague during the 2019 summer break and went home with an innovative idea for a social enterprise with a sustainable art focus: creating a network of college artists who turn used materials—many of which would otherwise end up in landfills—into objects of beauty and lasting value.

Now Earthy Creations is poised to expand to at least two other university campuses—Tulane and the University of California-Santa Cruz—through start-up ambassador programs this fall. Led by an all-women team, the venture’s goal, Almeida said, is “to help young, aspiring artists pursue their creative dreams,” with a website that features each creator’s works for sale “so that consumers can build a relationship with budding artists.”

Duke University student Bella Almeida attended the Sullivan Foundation’s 2019 study-abroad program in Prague and hit upon an idea for a social enterprise with a sustainable art focus.

Developing a Business Model
Like most social entrepreneurs, Almeida has had to learn, adapt and rethink her strategy along the way. “Originally, I simply wanted to start a club at my school that allowed me to express my creative side and make a difference for an issue that really mattered to me—the environmental crisis,” said Almeida, a Miami native who’s also working on her undergraduate certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke. “However, when I went to the study-abroad program and was pushed to think in terms of an ‘enterprise,’ I realized that the idea for Earthy Creations could be converted into a business model through the sale of the pieces.”

Almeida also suspected she was onto something that could spread far and wide. “The interest shown by my classmates in starting the same club at their universities encouraged me to think of Earthy Creations as something that could be a college chain with an online center/connector,” she said.

Back home, Almeida started Earthy Creations as “an organization dedicated to directing the attention of students—the citizens of the future—to the problem of mismanaged waste through art.” After its first year, she began to revise her business model and growth plans. “The idea was that we would have clubs at schools across the nation that would send pieces to the site for sale,” Almeida recalled. “There were a couple of flaws with this model to begin with. First off, I soon discovered that the club model wasn’t very feasible for expansion to other schools because of all the forms and red tape you had to cut through to actually start a club. It would just take too much time and effort to coordinate all the necessary forms if we want to grow big. Second, school money allotted to the club can’t be tied to the sale of any product. Hence, it was going to be complicated to separate the school’s money from what was being created by our artists and sold on the site.”

Empty wine bottles became stunning works of art in student workshops hosted by Earthy Creations on the Duke University campus.

Her plans to host weekly workshops on campus—in which students would make art out of recyclable materials—didn’t quite pan out as expected either. “Because Duke attracts students who are ultra-focused on their set career paths—predominantly consulting, pre-med and computer science—they scarcely make time to do any kind of art,” Almeida said. “The only really popular workshops were ones in which people could transform a small object, like a wine bottle, for room decor. But the workshops were successful in the fact that they built a really strong bond between me and the 10 other students I had recruited to host the workshops.”

Earthy Creations’ exhibits featuring students’ artwork also proved to be a hit. “We had an exhibit in the middle of campus where people could pop in as they walked by, and we received super-positive feedback from it. People took pictures with some of the pieces, and that spread the message of the potential to innovate with recyclable goods even further. The buzz from the exhibit also helped attract more artists for Earthy Creations.”

Building a Network
Encouraged by the response, Almeida began putting together a team of likeminded Duke students, including Abby Shlesinger, Kat Beben, Arushi Bhatia, Kira Upin and Geshna Aggarwal, to build out the concept. She also tapped into her network of friends at Tulane and UCSC to bring Earthy Creations to their campuses. “The Tulane program had just finished the process of officially becoming a club when [the pandemic] started, and the UCSC program was just about to start that process,” she said. “However, now that we’ve decided to pursue ambassador programs instead of clubs, these programs will begin to grow as soon as students return to school in the fall.”

Each program will be managed by three ambassadors who will recruit artists on their campuses and coordinate one or two exhibits each year. Ambassadors earn a 5 percent commission from the sale of the pieces they collect for the website. “We also decided to take the most popular workshop—empty wine bottle painting—and sell the event to big companies as a team-building event for employees that supported a good cause,” Almeida said. “These events will be coordinated by ambassadors as well and will help add a steady stream of revenue to support the site.”

Almeida and her team also plan to pitch the Earthy Creations concept this fall to art departments and MFA programs at other universities and reach out to high schools as well. “We are looking for people who exhibit skills of leadership, passion, organization and team management,” she said. “They don’t necessarily need to be artists, just people with initiative, because starting an ambassador program means being an entrepreneur at your own school.”

Duke University student artist Dylan Newbro’s works, including Medusa, were displayed at Earthy Creations’ first exhibit and on the company’s website.

Transforming Trash
Meanwhile, Almeida and her fellow artists demonstrate that yesterday’s rubbish has meaning and worth beyond its short-lived practical utility: Reimagined through the eyes of an artist and reshaped with an artist’s hands, it can be transformed and made whole again, expressing eternal truths through materials that were meant to be disposable. Sustainable art also raises awareness of mismanaged waste and its environmental impact, Almeida believes.

The artwork—soon to be available on Earthy Creations’ website—is both stunning and often eerily unsettling. In Dylan Newbro’s works, a recycled camera and tangled wires strapped around a mannequin’s head become the mythological Medusa, while a discarded circuit board and strands of cables attached to a sculpted golden hand convey the fabled touch of King Midas. Kira Upin’s “Nature vs. Nurture”—a deconstructed baby’s crib littered with plastic bottles and fake flowers—challenges us to rethink contemporary notions of value and the viewer’s role in the web of life.

Zoe Kim’s “Fracture,” also for sale on the website, is Almeida’s favorite piece. “It’s a broken mirror with a very rustic-looking stone frame,” she said. “The artist painted a portrait split by the break of the mirror. The half with the mirror is a more realistic depiction of the girl with a sunny spring background. Meanwhile, the side of the mirror with the glass missing depicts the girl’s hair transformed into water with a Koi fish swimming nearby.”

The Earthy Creations website itself will serve as an online gallery for art made out of used materials. It’s a work in progress, with details of how it will function as a business still being ironed out. In addition to the ambassadors’ commissions, the student artists themselves will receive 50 percent of each sale, while the remaining proceeds will be used to support Earthy Creations programs at other universities.

“Before selling anything, we are in the middle of performing market research to figure out exactly who our target consumer is and what they are willing and able to pay,” Almeida noted. “We are also working on calculating rates for carbon-neutral shipping of our products. After the target consumer, price and shipping have been determined, we will begin working on our marketing strategy. Once that has been finalized, we will post the site and get ready for sales.”

Another work on display at Earthy Creations’ first exhibit, Kira Upin’s “Nature vs. Nurture” challenges contemporary notions of value and raises questions about the viewer’s role in the web of life.

A Tailormade Career
Almeida said the Sullivan Foundation’s study-abroad program was “a transformative experience that really helped me develop my business idea by teaching me to identify and research the problem, define a mission, assess costs and competition, set milestones, and determine a measure of impact before implementation. The program also helped me believe in myself and in my idea because I received a lot of encouragement and support from students and professors alike.”

Now that she has cleared many of the hurdles that come with launching a social enterprise, Almeida said, “I can definitely see myself doing it fulltime after graduation. If not that, then I would probably work for a business for two years to learn the ropes before trying again with another business of my own,” she added.

“After this experience creating and leading Earthy Creations, I can say with certainty that I want to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “To me, there is no other profession that gives me the same feeling of fulfillment and freedom for creativity and leadership. I also have always struggled to choose a career because I have such diverse interests. With entrepreneurship, I don’t have to choose. I can create a business with any combination of interests I desire. I want to tailor my own career. I don’t want my career to tailor me.”

Letter From the President – Fall 2020

Spring is always a season of change, but the pandemic of Spring 2020 brought more changes than anyone could have anticipated. Here at the Sullivan Foundation, we were forced to make some difficult choices, reluctantly canceling our Ignite Retreat, Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip and Scotland Study Abroad adventure, among others, to protect the health and safety of our participants and staff. Like many others, we pivoted to virtual programming, including our well-received webinar series, “Navigating the Unknown,” hosted by Spud Marshall and featuring leading social innovators from around the country.

The pandemic will continue to affect our partner schools in the coming months. Each school will adapt to the challenges and arrive at its own solutions. The Sullivan Foundation will unveil a number of online offerings for students, educators and social innovators as well as new opportunities for Sullivan alumni to become more involved in the foundation. One exciting development is the creation of the VentureSouth Sullivan angel investment group, designed to benefit students in the Sullivan network while allowing partner school faculty, staff and alumni to become members of the South’s largest and most successful angel investment network.

Additionally, we will introduce our weekly Ignite Masterclass series of online workshops and networking sessions. Taught by social innovation leaders from around the country, each class features an expert mini-lecture on a specific social initiative and an opportunity for students to network with their peers at our partner schools, Sullivan coaches and other changemakers. We’ll also introduce the Coaching Cohort series designed to enrich participants’ personal growth, provide a deeper understanding of social problems they want to address and guide them along in developing their own social change projects.

Meanwhile, our website will feature new rich-media content with a strong educational and changemaking focus. And there’s more new Sullivan programming to come—too much to cover in this limited space. The upcoming school year will be an unusual period of adjustment, but the past six months have demonstrated that unprecedented challenges create unprecedented opportunities for innovation, positive change and creativity. This issue of Engage focuses on some of those innovations and changemakers who have been making a difference in their own remarkable ways. I hope you will enjoy it and look forward to hearing from you as we keep moving boldly forward into the future.

Steve McDavid
President, Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation

The Man Who Makes Money Grow

By Rick Hynum

Sullivan Foundation alumnus Matt Dunbar started feeling the “entrepreneurial itch” while working as a chemical engineer in the early 2000s. But scratching that itch required a radical shift in his mindset—from linear, step-by-step causal thinking to effectual reasoning, a more fluid approach that embraces the unknown and the unknowable. Both styles have their place in the business world, but effectual thinking—which is inherently creative and improvisational—is crucial to building a business from scratch. After all, there’s no way to predict what challenges might be waiting around the corner in a startup venture.

Luckily for entrepreneurs and startups in South Carolina and surrounding states, Dunbar kept scratching until he found the sweet spot. A Clemson University graduate and recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, Dunbar now serves as managing director of VentureSouth, one of the country’s leading angel investment groups. Along with VentureSouth co-founders Charlie Banks and Paul Clark, he has helped guide dozens of entrepreneurs to success while jumpstarting the region’s economy with funding for new businesses—many of them tech-based—that have created hundreds of high-paying jobs.

From Carolina to California
Raised in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Dunbar graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1999 from Clemson, where he served as student body president and received the Sullivan Award. “I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the award or the Sullivans before I became a recipient at Clemson,” he said. “But once I had a chance to learn about the history and legacy of the award and its namesake, I was extremely honored and humbled to share the award with such a long line of great servant leaders. Even now I am still challenged and inspired to try to live up to the principles and values it represents.”

After graduation, Dunbar worked for Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tenn. for several years. Ultimately, he said, “I decided I didn’t want to be an engineer for the rest of my career,” he told podcaster John Livesay. “I was more intrigued with some of the business challenges I encountered within the company and decided it was a good time in my life—in my late 20s—to have an adventure.”

So he packed up and moved across the country to earn his MBA and Masters in Education from Stanford University in 2005. There, he was exposed to new ideas and opportunities in business. “It opened my eyes to a new world,” he said. “I also didn’t know anything about investment banking and consulting. I was really impressed with my classmates that came out of those backgrounds in terms of their skills sets—their ability to analyze data, to synthesize business solutions and communicate them really clearly. I decided I wanted to learn some of those skills.”

After leaving Stanford, he landed at the Boston Consulting Group in Atlanta. “I was able to improve some of those skills that I was so intrigued by, but mostly in working with Fortune 500 companies,” he recalled in the podcast interview. “But I still had an itch … to be more involved in entrepreneurial and younger, high-growth businesses rather than large established businesses.”

this photo shows an electric bus manufactured by Proterra

VentureSouth provided startup angel funding for Proterra, a leading innovator in heavy-duty electric transportation.

A Fast Learner
He got his chance after a serendipitous meeting with some fellow South Carolinians who wanted to start an angel investment group to boost the state’s struggling economy. Dunbar came on board to help launch the Upstate Carolina Angel Network (UCAN) as its founding managing director in 2008. UCAN has since evolved into one of the country’s largest angel investment groups, now called VentureSouth.

At the time, Dunbar didn’t know much about angel investment groups, which consist of accredited private investors who join together to identify, evaluate and fund startup companies and provide guidance to the entrepreneurs on growing their businesses. “As an engineer, you’re trained to think in a logical, linear way, which lends itself well to working in a large organization with fairly well-understood trajectories,” he said. “But it turns out the engineering way of thinking in logical, linear steps isn’t necessarily the best way to think about startups because nothing is linear, nothing is known, and everything is ambiguous. It was somewhat of a challenging transition for me. But I was intrigued by it and wanted to think in a more effectual way, where you’re faced with uncertainty and ambiguity and you try to create order from chaos.”

Dunbar proved to be a fast learner. Since its inception, VentureSouth, which includes more than a dozen connected angel groups across the Carolinas, has invested nearly $50 million in more than 75 companies, with a focus on startups in the Southeast.

Companies in its portfolio include Altis Biosystems in Chapel Hill, N.C., which specializes in next-generation stem cell technologies designed to make drug discovery faster, cheaper and safer while reducing the need for animal testing; ActivEd, the Greenville, S.C. developer of a technology platform for movement-based learning—such as Walkabouts—to get kids out of their desks and onto their feet as they’re learning language arts and mathematics; Proterra, a leading innovator in heavy-duty electric transportation; and Spiffy, an on-demand car company that started in the North Carolina Research Triangle Park.

The VentureSouth Sullivan Angel Group
Dunbar sees VentureSouth and angel investment groups as an engine for creating economic growth—and positive social impact—in regions where venture capital has long been scarce. And, as a Sullivan alumnus, he and his team recently launched an affiliate angel investment group, called VentureSouth Sullivan, to continue that mission while benefiting the Sullivan Foundation.

With the formation of VentureSouth Sullivan, faculty, staff and alumni of the foundation’s 70 partner schools can become members of one of the top 10 angel groups in the country and invest in startup businesses that will drive the region’s economy. Upon joining, 25 percent of members’ annual dues will be donated to the Sullivan Foundation. All of those proceeds will be used to financially support students, faculty and staff who participate in the foundation’s events, programming and education initiatives focused on making positive change in their communities.

Members of VentureSouth Sullivan can also donate a percentage of any profits derived from their investments to the Sullivan partner school of their choice.

“I was fortunate and humbled to be presented the Sullivan Award upon graduating from Clemson, and, through chance, recently reconnected with the foundation,” Dunbar said. “Creating this affiliate group specifically for Sullivan alumni and donating a portion of the annual fees is one way of supporting the Sullivan network of schools and encouraging students to choose a path of service to their communities.”

this is a photo of an employee of Spiffy, an on-demand car care company, polishing the grill of a car.

Spiffy, an on-demand car care company, got its start at the North Carolina Research Triangle Park and received angel funding from VentureSouth.

Joining VentureSouth Sullivan’s angel group allows Sullivan alumni to use their investment dollars to make a positive difference in a region of the country that’s underserved in terms of venture capital. VentureSouth’s motto, after all, is “Make Money. Have Fun. Do Good.”

“For VentureSouth members, ‘doing good’ comes from multiple levels of impact created by our investing activity,” Dunbar said. “We know that all net job growth in the economy comes from young companies that grow fast—and which don’t usually have access to other forms of capital—so our investments really help fuel the growth of good jobs and opportunities and wealth creation in our communities.”

“Additionally, many of our portfolio companies are working to solve serious problems in arenas like cancer diagnostics, infant screening, women’s health, public transit and clean energy,” Dunbar added. “So we are helping advance significant efforts to save lives and protect our environment. And our model allows VentureSouth members to share their experience and wisdom with the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders, which creates a wealth of good in the form of passing it down and paying it forward.”

Want to learn more about joining the VentureSouth Sullivan angel investment group? Three online Q&A sessions are scheduled at for the following dates:

4 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 1
8:30 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 9
11 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 17

Saxbys: Coffee With a Conscience

Coffee is easy to find in caffeine-crazed cities coast to coast, but coffee with a conscience—that’s a taller order. Nick Bayer, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Saxbys, believes a good cup of java has the power to awaken social change even while it jolts you out of a sleepy stupor first thing in the morning. And with Saxbys’ innovative Experiential Learning Platform (ELP), it can also put college students on their own path to social entrepreneurship.

Bayer opened his first Saxbys café in 2005 with a mission to “make life better”—for his community, his employees and the planet itself. It has since grown into a 30-store chain stretching across the eastern U.S., from Georgia down south all the way up to New Hampshire.

From the start, Bayer envisioned Saxbys as much more than a coffee shop. “We are a hospitality and social impact company first and foremost, with our efforts primarily rooted in education and opportunity,” he said in a 2018 interview with his alma mater, Cornell University.

this photo shows two coffee drinks offered by Saxbys
Saxbys rolled out its inaugural Experiential Learning Platform in a partnership with Drexel University in 2015, creating the country’s first entirely student-run café. Students can earn full academic credit and wages through a cooperative education program. Each café is managed by a Student Café Executive Officer (SCEO) and submits a profit-and-loss statement every month to Saxbys’ executive team. In addition to being paid for their work, each SCEO receives ongoing mentorship, bonus-earning opportunities and training while helping peers grow into team leaders.

The program has expanded to 10 ELP cafes at eight universities, including two at Drexel, two at Temple University, and one each at La Salle University, Millersville University, West Chester University, Pennsylvania State University, St. Joseph’s University and Bowie State University. Two more cafes are scheduled to open in the fall of 2021 at the University of Pittsburgh.

The ELP Café
Working for an ELP café involves a lot more than slinging coffee for some quick cash. It’s a full-blown immersion in the highly competitive world of business operations with industry veterans showing you the ropes. Saxbys’ executives work closely with ELP team members to teach them skills ranging from financial management, marketing and community outreach to leading a team of their peers, social impact and systems thinking, all in a busy, bustling coffee shop frequented by their fellow students.

Bayer said the program was built around “the belief that the lessons we would teach in our cafés to undergrads and aspiring entrepreneurs would go way further than steaming milk and making lattes. In fact, it transcends the coffee business and teaches the skills necessary to be successful, civic-minded leaders in any industry.”

this photo shows Saxbys founder Nick Bayer with Devin Gallion at Bowie State University

Saxbys opened its first ELP Cafe in a historically black university at Bowie State University. Pictured are Saxbys founder Nick Bayer and Devin Gallion.

In other words, it’s the kind of learning experience that students can’t get in a traditional classroom. And Saxbys chooses its team members carefully. “First and foremost, our mission is to make life better, and core values are at the epicenter of our hiring process,” Bayer said. “Every single Saxbys team member goes through what we call a culture screening—where our certified recruiting team screens them first on the culture we are so proud of within the café. Because we’re on so many college campuses, we’re a lot of students’ first job, so we pride ourselves on the training and education program we’ve put in place that enables team members to reach their full potential and offer the hospitality we know our guests are looking for.”

Each ELP café has one fulltime position—the SCEO. “The rest of the team are current students in a part-time role,” Bayer said. “At some of our institutions, the university has realized how valuable our part-time leadership roles—which we call ‘team leads’—are and have started to offer credit for those positions as well on top of the Student CEO role. All café roles report to the SCEO, making them responsible for overseeing sometimes up to 70 of their peers.”

Building Relationships
Saxbys also looks for the right fit as far as partner institutions are concerned. “Our Experiential Learning Platform is composed of individuals with a really unique set of experiences in higher education, teaching, real estate and foodservice,” said Raymond Smeriglio, Saxbys’ head of partnerships and external relations. “That team works to identify universities leading the way in innovation, entrepreneurship and experiential learning. From there, like most things at Saxbys, the partnership is built off of relationships.”

this photo shows the passing of the bagel, a Saxbys ritual, at Millersville University

A departing ELP Cafe SCEO passes the bagel, a Saxbys ritual, at Millersville University.

“The partnership conversation usually starts at the presidential or board level,” Smeriglio added. “Then, a team of intra-university officials combine with the Saxbys team to create two critical paths—academics and real estate. We create a crediting structure that benefits the students, does not hinder their graduation and keeps them eligible for financial aid. While those academic discussions continue, Saxbys continues to work with the university to identify the real estate that can turn into a beloved café and bustling Experiential Learning Saxbys.”

Historically, the coffee industry has been notorious for taking advantage of farmers in developing countries. In recent years, fair-trade market reforms, particularly in terms of ethical sourcing and sustainability, have led more companies to carefully consider their impact on the farmers who grow and harvest coffee around the world.

Ethical sourcing is ingrained in the Saxbys business model. A Saxbys’ team visits every country where their coffee is grown, direct-sourcing their coffee and purchasing it with a handshake at origin. “We want to be as involved in the process as possible to get the best product we can find and also to nurture and develop relationships,” Smeriglio said. “We will often select from hundreds and even thousands of farms in a geographical area to determine which coffee would be ideal for Saxbys. Last year alone we visited Kenya, Ethiopia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador.”

this photo depicts two women employees at a Saxbys ELP Cafe at La Salle University

In a ritual similar to “passing the bagel,” a departing SCEO passes the latte to her replacement at the ELP Cafe at La Salle University.

“It’s important to us that every coffee we serve has been purchased in a sustainable and ethical way,” he added. “We pay above fair-trade prices for our coffee and believe that it’s critical and necessary to pay coffee farmers what they deserve. We try our best to form long-standing relationships where we can purchase from producers year after year, allowing them to have more stability in planning.”

Saxbys is also committed to being transparent about its sourcing and the components of its blends. “We publish exactly what coffee is in each blend and where it came from for each of our coffees,” Bayer said. “Sharing our supply chain and blend information is not a common practice, but we believe that our guests like the aspect of traceability. It also gives credit to the hard-working coffee producers that make all of this possible.”

And it means university partners can feel comfortable knowing they’re working with a company that empowers its coffee growers in faraway lands as well as its student team members in the ELP environment—and the local community, too. In addition to providing scholarships and fellowship funds to students from all backgrounds, Saxbys has ongoing partnerships with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Philadelphia Youth Network, Covenant House and the National Youth Foundation, to name a few. And the ELP cafés make a commitment to hiring under-resourced students—including those who live under the poverty line or who have experienced homelessness—as well as those from more privileged backgrounds.

In addition to its current partner schools, Smeriglio said Saxbys is open to expanding its network and working with other schools that offer the right fit. They can contact Smeriglio directly via email at or by phone at (717) 599-8249. “We absolutely love having conversations about partnerships with any school that’s interested,” Smeriglio said.