It was a rollercoaster ride with an exhilarating ending that strengthened team bonds and proved a valuable learning experience as the La Sierra University Enactus team placed third in the nation for their entrepreneurial outreach projects in education and high-tech agriculture during the USA Exposition in New York on April 22, 2022.
Enactus, a global nonprofit based in Springfield, Mo., encourages students at universities and colleges worldwide to use innovative and entrepreneurial business principles in developing community impact programs that sustainably transform lives. The organization is supported by major corporations such as business services conglomerate KPMG, Rich's food products, and Regis Corporation, key presenters of this year's nationals. Each year, student teams in the U.S. compete on stage, giving multimedia annual report presentations about their projects before panels of business executives who serve as judges. Following a question-and-answer session, teams are ranked based on project impact, innovation, and presentation quality.
The winner of the national competition represents the United States at an annual fall Enactus World Cup event involving teams from around the globe. This year's World Cup will begin on October 30 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The team from Brigham Young University-Hawaii, which won the nationals in New York, will represent the United States. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater took second place, and Montgomery College came in fourth.
La Sierra University, Enactus's presentation focused on two main projects, which involved nearly 2,000 hours of strategizing and hands-on activities over the past year – the ongoing technology-based eLibrary, which launched in Jamaica in 2018, and the new Freight2Table hydroponics agriculture project, which began in March 2021.
This year's La Sierra Enactus team is comprised of 25 members, of which eight traveled to the national exposition – presentation team members Aaron Desjardins, Abigail Ramos, Sophia Adeogun and Chris Bauman, eLibrary project leader Natasha Thomas, Freight2Table project leader Samuel Nikuze, Kenton Brandmeyer the team's human resources co-director, as well as team president Megan Eisele who ran multimedia equipment during presentations. They were accompanied by Zapara School of Business staff members and freshmen Enactus team fellows Lovelyn Razzouk and Cathlyn Sumampouw.
Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the team first competed online in March in virtual opening rounds for the national competition, then traveled to New York for the in-person semi-final and final four rounds on April 21 and 22. Altogether, 51 teams from colleges and universities around the United States competed during USA Exposition events – 30 in World Cup-qualifying events and 21 in an Early Stage competition.
The student-driven projects represent hundreds of hours of work over the year, with many more hours accumulated in practice for the competition. The significant time investment and various challenges, including project success, concerns over stage fright, and the ability to recall and deliver memorized scripts, confront all students in such events. Entering the semi-finals against two other universities in League 2, one of four leagues, La Sierra Enactus was unsure of the outcome.
"Going into nationals, I was definitely concerned with our project progress," said La Sierra team president Eisele. She is a junior studying marketing and public relations with aspirations of becoming a writer. "It's hard to know how large of an impact other teams have had and how we compare. But we continued working hard to help others, which is our goal anyway, and it has paid off."
Students had to wait until the following day to know the semi-final results announced just before midday as they all stood on stage. The moment that La Sierra's name was called the League 2 semi-finalist that would be moving on to the final four championship rounds was exhilarating and unnerving. The final round would take place an hour later.
"I was over the moon when we moved on to the final four stages of the competition," said presentation team member Bauman, a third-year senior graduating with degrees and career interests in marketing and management. "I was also freaking out because we only had around half an hour to get composed and prepare for the next big presentation."
Ramos noted, "When standing on that stage waiting to hear whether or not we had made the final four, all I could feel were nerves going through my body. At that point, nothing was certain, and the possibility of presenting again made me feel so excited." She is a third-year business management and marketing major aiming for public relations or management.
"I couldn't believe it," said Thomas after watching her presentation teammates receive the League 2 semi-finalist award. "I was in a state of shock, but I had to get over that quickly because I had to do Abi's [Ramos] hair for [final four] presentation."
The La Sierra Enactus presentation team found themselves back on stage competing with three other universities for the national trophy in front of a new panel of judges, top executives from large firms who arrived with notepads in hand. In the end, the team did not land the top award, but the third-place finish was a significant and unexpected achievement and a significant recognition of their efforts. Through it, all many lessons were learned, including the value of teamwork and commitment to a common goal and a recognition of the ability to overcome personal hurdles.
"Getting to the final four and placing third in the nation made me feel that everyone understood the gaps we were trying to fill," said Adeogun. "That we were making a change in more than just the people we were helping but the people with the access."
"My biggest concern going into the national competition was finding a way to summarize our projects into just a 12-minute video, as there are so many components that we want to further elaborate on," said Desjardins, who is the incoming La Sierra Enactus team president for the 2022-23 school year. He is a junior majoring in business marketing and graphic design with career aims in advertising and branding design. "Dealing with this concern, I worked with the presentation team and scriptwriting team to craft a compelling description of each of our points. I was also concerned with how I would do presenting on stage, as I'm not much of a public speaker. In dealing with this, I worked closely with my team and friends and worked hard to memorize and perfect my script memorization daily," he said.
"I was so happy when we got announced as a final four team," said Brandmeyer, a fourth-year student majoring in business management with aspirations in sports management or finance. "I think this trip has taught us to work harder and more efficiently than before. The number one thing I learned about this trip is just how much change can take place in a short period of time. As a team, we changed immensely from a month before the present day, and it has been amazing to watch."
Adeogun noted, "Since this was my first year in Enactus, I learned about what great things Enactus chapters are doing around that world. All the projects that we saw were filling some gap that society had left behind. That was truly amazing to see because it was all happening through college students. Enactus was the first time that I thought I was doing adult work as a student." A junior healthcare management major, she holds an interest in children's hospital management.
"When we finished our second presentation, I knew that we did everything possible, and no matter what place we got, I would be happy and proud of my team," Bauman said. "The whole experience was very emotional, very tiring, and very impactful. I would not trade the experience for anything in the world."
Thomas is a senior healthcare management and pre-medicine major and aims to become a physician and hospital administrator. She noted the importance of Enactus's involvement as a student. As the daughter of Zapara School of Business Dean John Thomas, who founded the first team in 1991, Enactus has been a part of Natasha Thomas' life from the beginning. Over the past two years, she has experienced direct involvement as a team member and leader of the library project.
"Enactus has been vital to my leadership journey," she said. "From the day I met the first Jamaican eLibrary students in 2018, I knew this was going to be my project. eLibrary has taught me how important education is and how privileged I am to have my education. Every student deserves the same access to quality educational materials. eLibrary has the capabilities to give them that access. I love Enactus, and I love this project.
The team is based at the Tom & Vi Zapara School of Business, where Thomas and faculty and staff shepherd the students through their projects and preparation. Key business school members over the years who have been central to the Enactus team's successes have included Program Manager and Enactus Sam Walton Fellow John Razzouk, a former team president and World Cup winner; Executive Education Co-Director Heather Miller; former Business Services Coordinator Cheryl Bauman, and the late Jodi Cahill, external degree program business development director who passed away last fall. This year's team was guided for the first time by Lovelyn Razzouk, the dean's assistant, and staff member Sumampouw.
The La Sierra Enactus eLibrary consists of consumer-grade flash drives that use state-of-the-art micro-compression technology to host thousands of digital textbooks, videos, and other educational material. The micro compression technology was developed by Enactus partners Mark Gaspar and the late Ron Zane through their organization, Global Education Ministries. The drives plug into any computer or tablet for immediate access to extensive educational resources or can plug into school computer networks.
The project began with 1,200 flash drives distributed to 171 schools in Jamaica, followed by dispersal within the Alvord Unified School District in Riverside, Calif., and other institutions. Since then, the team has expanded its eLibrary outreach to impact Holbrook Indian School in Arizona, La Vida Mission School in New Mexico, Samaritan Inn Homeless Shelter in Texas, Kamagambo Adventist High School in Kenya, and operations of California's Migrant Education Program in Riverside, Merced, Modesto, and Stanislaus counties.
This year the team expanded the drive's storage capacity by more than 200% and updated its content to include a general study 2022 version that offers 'Business Concepts for Scientists,' NASA videos, and nearly 1,000 new textbooks from Open University. New bilingual and life science and health editions of the eLibrary drives were also developed. The drives are purchased in bulk from Flashbay.com. A new pay-it-forward model is in the works to reduce costs by outsourcing the production of pre-programmed drives.
Freight2Table evolved from a partnership with the local nonprofit Growing Hope, which provides educational and career pathway access to San Bernadino Unified School District students through involvement in hydroponics agriculture. This interaction led to a larger vision and the acquisition of a high-tech hydroponics farm housed within a 40-foot shipping container designed by Boston-based Freight Farms. The container's environmentally controlled systems can grow a wide variety of leafy greens and herbs based on a reverse osmosis water filtration system and a timed and regulated supply of electricity and nutrient-infused water. Growing lights spur plant photosynthesis. This method of farming allows for a weekly yield of 990 heads of lettuce and water utilization that is 95% more efficient than traditional topsoil farming.
Freight2Table first phase carried out over the past year has consisted of utilizing the farm and its systems for educational purposes within university programs and for the team's research and development of its produce. Campus and local community members have benefited from team donations of fresh produce.
The team is currently entering Freight2Table's business model-based second phase, which aims for profitability and expansion by selling produce to local markets and vendors who are interested in obtaining organically and sustainably grown produce. The first steps have included agreements with the university's Dining Commons and La Sierra Natural Foods market. Meanwhile, the team's vision has evolved further to encompass a future sustainability park for researching hydroponics and agricultural technology.
Enactus, described as "the world's largest entrepreneurial learning platform," began in 1975 as SIFE, or Students in Free Enterprise, and changed its name in 2012 to Enactus, a derivative of the words Entrepreneurial, Action, and Us. Its partners and donors include Ford, Unilever, KPMG, Citi Foundation, Bellisio Foods, The Coca-Cola Company, Regis Corp., Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Rich's food products, Hershey, and many others.
Approximately 72,000 students at 1,730 campuses in 36 countries are currently involved in Enactus. Students pursue entrepreneurial business models that make positive, long-lasting impacts based on assessments and needs identification.
The business school-based Enactus team at La Sierra University is in its 30th academic year of operation. Thomas built the first team when the organization was called Students In Free Enterprise, or SIFE. The name changed to Enactus in 2012. Thomas guided and encouraged the fledgling La Sierra SIFE chapter through its initial growing pains to become a highly regarded contender that raised the bar on project impact and competition standards and set a precedent for the most national wins. The team has won seven national titles thus far, the last in 2016, and two world cups. It has placed in the final four rounds numerous times over the years.
Backing from friends and supporters along the way has been crucial to the team's success, most notably that of entrepreneurs Tom and Vi Zapara, the business school's namesakes who have believed in and financially contributed to the team, its endeavors, and competition participation each year for 25 years. "We are so deeply grateful for the continual support of the Zaparas, without whom our team would have much greater difficulty reaching their goals," Thomas said. "They are steadfast friends of our school and Enactus team and firm believers in the benefits of a Seventh-day Adventist education."
Until this year, Thomas had accompanied the students to every national event. But due to a change in the national competition schedule and a previously booked trip to India, he could not travel with the team to New York. However, he followed their progress continually, despite a 12-hour time difference, online through the Enactus competition live stream, text messages, and social media. On April 19, 20, and 21, he spoke to the team directly by phone, expressing his pride and thanks for their hard work, and encouraging them to dig deep and do their best.
"We have been training and developing business students for 30 years to live out both the Zapara School of Business and the Enactus organization's values of creating value and making a difference, of using their heads for business and their hearts for changing the world," Thomas said. "We are reminded of why we work so hard to keep our Enactus team going through fundraising and hundreds of hours of coaching, encouraging, and mentoring whenever we see that impact taking place and the long-term value our Enactus teams are creating, not just outwardly within communities, but within themselves, as our students reach personal heights, they never envisioned."