The New School News

Venture Lab Students Present Socially Engaged Entrepreneurial Ventures at Pitch Event

Twenty-one million people in the United States work in the food and hospitality industries. About 20 percent of them don’t speak English.

According to Rachael Nemeth, this “creates a massive communications barrier that leads to social and business problems” such as lost productivity, high turnover, and career stagnation for millions of people who have never had the opportunity to learn the language.

“Skilled workers who could move ahead are passed over for opportunities for which they are more than qualified,” she told a high-energy audience of judges and spectators at The New School’s Theresa Lang Community and Student Center recently. “They end up getting stuck in the low-wage labor market.”

Nemeth, MA TESOL ’18, and her colleague Robin Burger have a solution: ESL Works, an English language training and professional development program. Through on-site and online instruction, employees are taught the language and life skills needed for success in the workplace. Workers become more productive and, in turn, businesses become more profitable—“a win-win,” Nemeth said.

“What happens when there’s English instruction for workers on every farm, processing plant, grocery store, and restaurant?” she asked. “Employees thrive and grow, managers retain their team, companies attract more talent, and the food industry flourishes.”

ESL Works was one of 11 teams that competed for thousands of dollars in prize money for its start-up business in the Venture Lab Pitch Event. Hosted by The New School’s Impact Entrepreneurship Initiative (IEI), the competition gave students enrolled in the Venture Lab course the chance to sell their ideas and receive constructive feedback from New York City-based socially engaged entrepreneurs. Shaun Johnson, co-founder of Startup Institute, gave a keynote address.

Reflecting The New School’s focus on social engagement and entrepreneurship, the semester-long course led by Jen van de Meer, assistant professor at School of Design Strategies at Parsons, provides current master’s and upper-level undergraduate students with the support, resources, and capacity they need to build financially sustainable businesses that address critical societal challenges.

“The world of careers has changed so much in the last decade,” says Michele Kahane, faculty director of IEI, professor of professional practice at the Schools of Public Engagement, and associate dean for social engagement. “Through Venture Lab, they develop a broad range of skills and a mindset that is not only crucial to advancing their careers but also critical to addressing pressing issues.”

ESL Works is one of the five teams that won funding at the Venture Lab Pitch Event. Another winning team is Modesty Group, a Senegal-based clothing line that creates garments for professional Muslim women who wish to adhere to traditional cultural practices but on their own terms.

“We are at a critical time. Women everywhere are saying, ‘We’re here, we’re not going anywhere,’” said Ndeye Aminata Dia, MS Strategic Design and Management ’19, who was joined by her partners Fatymatou Dia and Mouhammad Fall. “Modesty’s message has never been as relevant. We believe that beauty shouldn’t hurt, and fashion is our tool to be part of the conversation and bring representation where it’s lacking.”

The three other winners are Original Kids, a community that encourages creative expression among children and adults; Nora, a company that aims to produce a sanitary napkin made of 100 percent organic cotton; and Leading ChangeMakers, an initiative that provides professionals of color in the nonprofit arts and culture sector with leadership development opportunities. The remaining teams are UputSpirus Breathing MaskNightingale FarmsLeformEntryway Design, and Broke Broadway.

The IEI is a university-wide initiative that supports early-stage entrepreneurial leaders in developing the mindsets, skills and sense of purpose needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world.   

“We are seeking to create a more inclusive economy by making entrepreneurial education, resources and networks more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds at different stages of their entrepreneurial journey,” says Elizabeth Werbe, director of the IEI.

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