C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives (III)

2014 Recipient


Fred Rose, Brian Bell, and Lewis Gilbert (Institute on the Environment)
Julian Marshall (College of Science and Engineering)

The team that launched the idea of Acara at the University has energized students and faculty around creative solutions to basic problems. Students step out of the classroom into the laboratory that is society, and learn how to put theory into action. Students work across culture and across disciplines in responding to social concerns that affect people's most basic needs. That work combines creativity with practicality and theory with practice, providing students with the confidence that they can contribute to positive change. — Meredith McQuaid, Associate Vice President and Dean of International Programs

Acara team with Gene AllenAcara is an impact venture program managed by the Institute on the Environment in collaboration with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management, with a mission to develop student change makers and innovative business solutions that address global grand challenges. Acara leaders believe global challenges such as food security, environmental harm, lack of clean water and energy sources, poor sanitation, and other issues can be resolved or alleviated via financially sustainable ventures. By offering a series of courses and incubation actions directed toward developing ventures focused on solving environmental or social challenges, Acara is able to achieve goals of education plus impact.

Acara’s primary programs included the Acara Challenge, for-credit courses, global venture design workshops, Minnesota venture design workshops, monthly Acara impact venture reviews, and ongoing incubation of U of M social entrepreneurs. The Acara Challenge, Acara’s flagship event, is a yearly venture plan competition for student social entrepreneurs focused on addressing global challenges. In the 2014 Acara Challenge students worked on ventures in India, Haiti, Uganda, and China. One example is MyRain, a drip irrigation business for small-scale farmers that is now running in Madurai, India. Steele Lorenz, MyRain CEO, moved from Minnesota to India to run the business, which was founded with his partner Sri Latha Ganti. Both are University of Minnesota graduates and started this business in an Acara course. MyRain was featured in Business Week in August 2013.

Creating a course like the Acara Challenge is not easy, which is why there are no other courses like it. There are many obstacles to this type of impact venture program, many having to do with the challenges of working across colleges, centers, and departments at the University. A Grand Challenge Working Group was set up to develop approaches to allow more faculty to easily create classes like Acara. There are pedagogical risks as well. Students are challenged with a range of concepts to learn (design thinking, business model generation, presentation skills, issues with the foundations and culture of their challenge area), which is a lot for a student, or an instructor, to cover in one semester. There are ethical issues to consider too, as students are working with real people. The target audience for Acara’s courses is students across the University of Minnesota, both graduate and undergraduate students from a diverse array of colleges and disciplines. The diversity of involved students makes it challenging to recruit participants, but the students repeatedly report that this multi-disciplinary aspect makes it one of their most valuable and memorable courses. Mentors from outside the University are also needed, the connections to a university in another country are frustrating at times, and working with real problems can be overwhelming. All of the complexities of the program add time and challenges for students. The program, however, provides the structure and resources necessary to bring these real-world global project experiences into the classroom.

Experiential learning is certainly not new, nor are social entrepreneurship courses. Acara, however, immerses interdisciplinary student teams in a real-world challenge area and culture, and requires them to come up with a viable problem statement and venture solution. This entire package, combined with the diversity of students, is what makes the Acara program so innovative. The class demands that students apply their learning to working with others, to understanding other cultures, and to finding and solving real-world problems for real people. These aspects help students bridge the gap between being a student and living and working outside academia, preparing them to live and work in the new global economy.