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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.”

Study Abroad in Scotland: A “Game of Thrones” Adventure

If you were a character on Game of Thrones, which one would you be? Jon Snow, the noble, dutiful hero? Daenerys, the fierce, fearless and charismatic breaker of chains? Or are you more like Tyrion, the wily, witty, warm-hearted underdog with a penchant for peacemaking and a taste for the good life?

Students who take part in the Sullivan Foundation’s Study Abroad in Scotland adventure this summer will discover their personal leadership styles in the context of the beloved HBO show, according to Dr. Jody Holland, a University of Mississippi professor who will lead one of the two courses offered in the program.

Doune Castle near Scotland was used to depict Winterfell, the Stark family’s ancestral home, in the early episodes of Game of Thrones. HBO is reportedly planning to shoot scenes for the hit show’s prequel, House of the Dragon, in the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands.

“We’re going to have some fun with it,” said Holland, an assistant professor in Ole Miss’ Department of Public Policy Leadership. “This is a Game of Thrones-oriented program. We’re going to look at some characters from Game of Thrones and identify their leadership traits and apply those [to the coursework]. We’re expecting this program to be a highly engaging, active learning process that individuals will glean a lot of information from.”

this photo shows edinburgh, home base for the Sullivan Study Abroad in Scotland program

Edinburgh will be the home base for this summer’s Study Abroad in Scotland program. (Image by Ellen26 from Pixabay)

Titled “Leading for Innovation: Study Abroad in Scotland,” the program, offered in partnership with Arcadia University, takes place June 4-July 4. Applications must be submitted by Feb. 1, and candidates who are selected to participate will be notified by Feb. 7.

Click here to learn more about the Study Abroad in Scotland program and fill out the application here.

The program is designed for students interested in social entrepreneurship and innovation. Scotland is one of the world’s leaders in the social-enterprise sector. A 2017 census conducted by the Scottish government found there were 5,600 social enterprises operating in Scotland, an increase of 8 percent over 2015. These social ventures employed more than 81,000 people and generated £3.8 billion (about $5.45 billion) in annual revenues.

Related: This Scottish social entrepreneur is the landlord every tenant deserves

But launching a social enterprise requires unique leadership skills that you can’t learn in a typical college-level business course. Holland will teach the study-abroad program’s “Leadership by Design” class, which focuses on the practice of leadership. The course examines topics such as the nature of leadership, recognizing leadership traits, developing leadership skills, creating a vision, handling conflict and overcoming obstacles, among others.

“We want students to take a self-reflective look so they can identify their own leadership philosophy, strengths and skills and really dive into that ability to self-design their leadership approach and serve as an agent of change on their campus and in their community, region and the world,” Holland said.

this photo depicts characters who inspired the Sullivan Study Abroad in Scotland program

By the end of the Study Abroad in Scotland program, you’ll know something (about social entrepeneurship), Jon Snow. (Photo by HBO)

At the same time, students will venture out of the classroom, exploring the thriving social enterprise scene in Edinburgh and other Scottish cities. “We want the students to immerse themselves in the culture and environment,” Holland said. “We’re going to have a lot of engagement with the community and with community leaders.”

Spud Marshall, the Sullivan Foundation’s Student Engagement Coordinator, said the second course, “Social Change in Action,” offers a “spiral learning dynamic.”

“We’ll start with a clear framework for creative ways to innovate around social and environmental problems,” he said. “Spiraling up from there, the students will create a case study analysis of local groups in the community that are tackling some of these social problems. They’ll be able to apply those frameworks to practical case studies and then scale up to a blueprint for social change. Students will work in teams to create unique social innovation interventions based on local groups they connect with and insights from the community.”

“We’ll bounce a lot back and forth between what social change in action looks like and the inner dimension of leading social change, making sure these students have the inner qualities they need to effect change,” Marshall added.

The first week of the program will focus on leadership, while the second week takes students out into the community to learn from social-enterprise leaders and changemakers. “During the third week, we’ll really start to dive into the principles of social entrepreneurship, and the students will start to develop their own blueprints for effective change,” Marshall said. “And in the fourth week, we’ll package it all together with a focus on effective storytelling and communication techniques students can use to properly convey their ideas and pitch the projects they want to bring into the world.”

Related: Scottish government commits millions to funding social enterprises in 2020

Throughout the month-long program, co-curricular events will immerse students in Scottish culture and provide day-trip opportunities. Past excursions have ranged from a Highlands Games day to a Scottish dancing experience and visits to Rosslyn Chapel and the Scottish Borders. Students will be housed in flats at the University of Edinburgh.

The fee for the program is $4,740, which covers six hours of academic credit, housing, site visits and tours, health and accident insurance, 24-hour emergency support and local transportation in Edinburgh. A limited number of Scotland study-abroad scholarships, ranging between $500 and $1,000, are available for students who attend the Sullivan Foundation’s partner schools. For more information on the scholarships, contact Merry Huddleston at admin@sullivanfdn.org.

 

A Life-Changing Summer in Prague

Steeped in history and brimming with bohemian allure, Prague has a famously romantic past, but for Sullivan Scholar Lori Kaitlyn Babb, it also offers a glimpse of a dazzling future in which innovative young thinkers like herself take the lead in building a better world.

A senior biology major at Campbell University who also serves as a Sullivan Ambassador, Babb spent the month of July 2019 in the Czech Republic’s capital city in a Sullivan-sponsored study-abroad experience. The program included two courses, Social Entrepreneurship + Global Change and Philosophies of Leadership, plus an excursion to Vienna, where Babb and her fellow students visited one of the four United Nations headquarters, and a weekend getaway to Budapest, Hungary.

The scenery in Prague is nothing short of spectacular—towering Gothic cathedrals, magnificent castles plucked from the pages of fairy tales, an ancient astronomical clock with moving figures of the 12 apostles. But the coursework was equally eye-opening, Babb said, thanks to the tutelage of Sullivan Foundation President Steve McDavid; Dr. Jody Holland, an assistant professor in the University of Mississippi’s Department of Public Policy Leadership; and Heather McDougall, founder and executive director of Leadership exCHANGE.

this photo shows the subject's excitement to visit the John Lennon Wall in Prague

Lori Babb, a Sullivan Ambassador and Sullivan Scholar, poses at the John Lennon Wall during a Sullivan study-abroad experience in Prague.

“On the academic side, I found the two courses to be incredibly formative in my thought-theory approaches to the ‘soft sciences,’” Babb said. “As a science major, a majority of my schoolwork is in the ‘hard sciences,’ but I loved exploring the social sciences, where methodologies have great variety and there isn’t always a concrete ‘right’ way to do something.”

Expecting the Unexpected

While social enterprise and leadership were the key subjects of study, the focus “expanded outside of just the classroom and syllabus,” Babb noted. The program included presentations by active social entrepreneurs who had gone through the study-abroad program in years past. “To be able to see and meet those who experienced the same program and who took those strides to ignite change and create social enterprises was incredibly inspiring,” she said. “It also emphasizes how life-changing this summer abroad can be if you utilize and maximize the skills and resources the program provides.”

Babb learned to expect the unexpected, too—and to embrace challenges to her viewpoint. “The greatest surprise (of the experience) would probably be learning that sometimes you don’t always get quite the answers you expect from the questions you ask,” Babb reflected. “Meaning you have to be expectant of the curveballs that not only business or academia throws at you, but, truly, life as a whole. I thrive in structure and long-term planning, but, realistically, no one can plan for everything.

this photo shows the beauty of Viennese architecture

As part of the Sullivan study-abroad program in Prague, Lori Babb and fellow students made a trip to Vienna, Austria.

“This is a life lesson that I didn’t foresee learning in a traditional classroom setting, but the classrooms were innovative on all fronts. Oftentimes, as we delved into project development or topic brainstorming, Dr. Holland would challenge our ideas with nonconventional ideals or devil’s-advocate perspectives. It helped shift my thought process to anticipate hardships and adapt when those inevitable problems arise.”

Building a Sustainable World

Throughout her study-abroad experience, Babb gained inspiration from many Europeans’ commitment to protecting the environment, practicing sustainability and reducing single-use plastic. “Anyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about sustainability,” she said. “I loved seeing the strides Eastern European countries were making towards a more sustainable community. For example, when grocery shopping, most people either bring a reusable tote/bag or carry their groceries out in-hand because plastic bags must be purchased. They cost just a couple of crowns, the equivalent of about a nickel. But that small price promotes bringing your own means of transport, which lessens the need for single-use plastic.”

Many restaurant customers also do their part for the environment by supplying their reusable own takeout or to-go containers rather than pay an extra fee. They can even order smaller portions to cut back on leftovers. “Not only does this limit plastic usage, but it also helps lessen food waste,” Babb noted. “In similar efforts, within Prague, plastic straws are not readily available or distributed or, in many cases, the straws are eco-friendly. These changes are slight, yet the sum of each person’s efforts will make a difference. I would love to see American entrepreneurs and governmental policy move towards sustainability in a similar manner.”

Babb enjoys a visit to Prague’s famous astronomical clock.

As a biology major, Babb has a particular interest in bioethics as well as social entrepreneurship. She plans to pursue graduate-level studies in bioethics with a focus on science policy. “I would like to steer towards the creation of a venture that can facilitate social change through the intersection of science, art and entrepreneurship,” she said. “During our tour of the United Nations of Vienna, I was overtaken with inspiration from the interdisciplinary work facilitated at an international level within those four walls where I was standing.”

Fired Up at the Ignite Retreat

Prior to her summer in Prague, Babb had attended the Sullivan Foundation’s Spring 2019 Ignite Retreat. That event, coupled with her study-abroad experience, got her fired up to represent the Sullivan Foundation as a Sullivan Ambassador on the Campbell University campus. “I recognized the greatness of what the Sullivan Foundation has to offer through its programming and events, and it feels almost selfish to keep it to myself,” she said. “I truly think these experiences shifted the big-picture trajectory of my life.”

“I learned how to widen my scope when approaching not only academics or business but in all aspects,” Babb continued. “This mindset of igniting change and working towards a common good shifts your perspective on everything. During my year as a Sullivan Ambassador, I hope I’m able to be that pivotal link for other students who yearn to leave a mark on this world and the Sullivan Foundation, which can help teach them the skills to do so.”

So, all in all, what did she take away from her month-long adventure in Prague? “Never underestimate the greatness you hold within you,” Babb concluded. “Hone your skill sets, continually learn from the world around you and harness your internal power. You can change the world.”