The challenge to do good

Students combine an entrepreneur’s hustle with a philanthropist’s mission

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SUMMARY: Shy Pahlevani (’07), the serial entrepreneur behind apps LiveSafe and Hungry, funded a semester-long social impact challenge through the Gilliam Center for Entrepreneurship. Altogether, JMU students have raised more than $30,000 in two semesters for the local community.

Under the guise of a student T-shirt competition, the Hisaoka-Pahlevani Social Impact Challenge is actually a competition in doing good. Through the Gilliam Center for Entrepreneurship, JMU students in MGT 310 spend a semester working on interdisciplinary teams to design, market and sell JMU-themed merchandise. At the end of the semester, all profits go to a local nonprofit of their choice, and students present their projects to compete for scholarship money.

The competition is the brainchild of Shy Pahlevani (’07), the serial entrepreneur who co-founded LiveSafe and Hungry with Jeff Grass (’92). Thanks to Pahlevani’s generous support, each team is given $1,000 in startup money. Then, they get to work: identifying a target market, determining product cost and pricing, defining sales and distribution strategy, and researching a local nonprofit of their choice to receive the proceeds. They must also determine the impact of that donation.

MGT 310 is required for students minoring in entrepreneurship, who have majors outside the College of Business. “So, we get engineering, history, political science and many art majors, who do not know anything about business,” said Suzanne Bergmeister, executive director of the Gilliam Center for Entrepreneurship who teaches the class alongside Sarah Dodson. “We wanted to give these students a hands-on, real-world business experience.” 

Pahlevani admits the prospect can be intimidating. “Think about everyone who has entrepreneurial ideas and never acts on it,” he said. “It’s just getting [students] to build their confidence…. That real-life experience is huge, and that’s missing in a lot of schools and universities.”

Student presenting
Over the course of the semester, students learned to sell the why behind their startups. 
Students show t-shirt design inspiration
The winning team Duke Dynasty Designs explains the inspiration behind their T-shirt.

Pahlevani’s inspiration for supporting this challenge came from his own experience creating his own T-shirt startup as a JMU student. “It gave me a lot of confidence, and that’s what I want the students to get as well,” he said. 

As for his devotion to philanthropy, Pahlevani credits one of his major investors Bob Hisaoka, a Washington, D.C.-based philanthropist, for whom the challenge was named. “From him, I really learned the true meaning of giving back and philanthropy,” Pahlevani said. Under the mentorship of Hisaoka, Pahlevani has been awakened to the good that can be done through business, not in spite of it. “You want giving and good that's sustainable, and that's your business,” he said.

Pahlevani’s latest venture Oasis Hill, an innovation hub to connect and empower American Muslims, started as a nonprofit, but Pahlevani quickly realized that he could have more impact transitioning it to a for-profit business. Instead of asking for donations every year, “I'm going to ask them to invest,” Pahlevani explained. “You're gonna put your money in once and this thing is going to sustain itself.”

“I totally want to flip the model.” 

Giving back is baked into Pahlevani’s other business ventures. For example, for every meal purchased through Hungry, the company donates two meals to those who are hungry. It’s a model he hopes the students are inspired to pursue after the competition.

Shy Pahlevani announces winners
Shy Pahlevani (’07) hopes other universities follow JMU and offer similar courses to give students hands-on entrepreneurship experience.

After a semester of hard work, the teams present their projects to a team of judges with family, friends and local nonprofits in attendance. Jumbo checks written out to local nonprofits lean against chairs as the students reflect on the triumphs, challenges and learning experiences from the semester.

Duke Dynasty Designs, who created the campaign “Duke Dog for President,” won a $2,500 scholarship for their T-shirt modeled after Barack Obama’s famous campaign poster. They spoke about their success partnering with JMU athletes, including football player Jalen Green and basketball player Xavier Brown, both of whom had signed a few shirts. 

More than one team relied on another kind of celebrity, JMU Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller, while others leveraged free resources at The Makery in Rose Library, parents’ groups on Facebook and foot traffic in D-Hall Commons.

Students with the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad
Runner-up Madison Spirit Co. raised more than $4,000 for the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad to help stock its ambulance.

After the pilot semester last fall, “we decided we were going to go big,” Bergmeister said.

The six teams doubled last semester’s proceeds and raised more than $20,000 for Generations Crossing, Skyline Literacy, Strength in Peers, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Hope Distributed and the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad. In total, the project has generated more than $30,000 for the local community.

“Even though we’re all competitors,” said Jacob McMurdy (’26), a Communication Studies major, “we’re working toward a common goal together.”

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by Ciara Brennan

Published: Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Last Updated: Thursday, May 23, 2024

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