There were a lot of raised hands at the opening of Friday’s New Challenge Pitch Event. “Raise your hand if you’re a judge…a finalist…a faculty member…an alum…an interested community member,” said Erika Nonken, a New School graduate student and project manager for the annual university competition designed to encourage student innovation. After every audience category had been identified in the packed auditorium, the event began. It was a mark of just how collaborative this university has become—faculty, alumni, students, administrators from all departments, and even practitioners from the surrounding community had assisted in this competition.
The New Challenge, which launched in spring 2012 as part of the university’s Social Innovation Initiative, is a contest to support student projects focusing on social and environmental issues. Offering $30,000 in project funding per year, the New Challenge is intended to inspire students to become leaders of change in the world and help them develop solutions to local community problems.
“The New Challenge is not just a business plan contest,” says Michele Kahane, professor of professional practice at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. “The New Challenge lays the groundwork for an environment that supports innovative thinking.”
To that end, the New Challenge offers much more than a final award. Contestants benefit from workshops, mentoring sessions, faculty advice, and collaborative meetings with fellow competitors during the challenge and in the following year. “These kinds of experiences position the winning students as leaders and innovators as they embark on their future careers, in whatever field that may be,” says Kahane.
This year, seven finalists were selected from nearly 100 entries. Each finalist receives funding, and the winner of the grand prize—to be announced on March 13—was decided at Friday’s final judging and pitch event. Student entries were assessed on criteria including the merit of final presentations, demonstrated understanding of the social or environmental issue, and the project’s potential to have a sustained impact.
“Ideas come in many forms,” says Kahane. “We’re looking for new social ventures and concepts for organizations, but also new products or designs that interact with existing platforms.”
The importance of collaboration is a theme repeated in alumni mentor sessions, team workshops, and even in the classroom. Faculty members have proposed courses where students take on New Challenge teams as “clients” for which they then create business plans and fundraising goals. “The New Challenge is about acquiring skills and forming relationships,” says Ally Dommu, a project manager for the competition and a graduate student at Milano. “There’s a lot of risk involved in being a social entrepreneur. It’s scary. We want students to feel supported in a broader community—inside the university and out—before they begin their careers in the field.”
To see this year’s finalists and semifinalists, check out the New Challenge website. The grand prize winner will be announced on March 13, following a panel discussion on social innovation featuring Echoing Green’s Cheryl Dorsey, Purpose’s Jeremy Heimans, the Acumen Fund’s Sasha Dichter and Parsons’ Bruce Nussbaum. RSVP at newchallenge.newschool.edu—and watch this space for an update on the winners.
*Update* The New Challenge grand prize winner has been announced! Read about it here.