Innovate Business Challenge
 

What ideas have kept businesses and nonprofits moving forward during the coronavirus outbreak?

TCU received many inventive ideas during its recent “Innovate! Business Challenge,” which supports the most creative ways that small businesses have evolved their operations in response to the pandemic.
 

The five winners from over 60 entries re-imagined their business models or pivoted to provide new products and services. Unifying themes include resilience and a determination to confront difficult circumstances in a way that allows the organizations not just to survive, but to thrive.
 

TCU committed $35,000 to the challenge — $10,000 more than originally offered because of the high-quality entries. The grit and creativity we’ve seen has been inspiring and we’re proud to support their efforts.
 

Certell.org, an Indianapolis nonprofit developer of online courses and educational materials, has been selected as the winner and will receive $15,000. Four other honorees — Bamar Plastics, Scarpe, Sip & Share Wines and Unity Gardens — will receive $5,000 each. Here is an introduction to our honorees.


 

$15,000 WINNER

Certell.org, Indianapolis

$5,000 RECIPIENTS

Bamar Plastics, South Bend
Scarpe, Valparaiso
Sip & Share Wines, Indianapolis
Unity Gardens, South Bend

 

CERTELL.ORG,  INDIANAPOLIS

LEARNING  ON  THE  FLY
 

Because of the pandemic, most educators and students suddenly found themselves forced to use technology as they teach and learn. At its peak in mid-April, the virus caused nationwide school closures in 190 countries, impacting almost 1.6 billion people globally.

That’s been a major learning curve for students, parents and educators moving their teaching online. But it’s also been an opportunity for TCU’s winner of the TCU Innovate! Business Challenge — Certell.org.

Certell is an Indianapolis nonprofit developer of global online courses and course materials. As schools shut down in response to the pandemic, teachers needed a steady supply of curriculum materials and at-home activities. Certell provides free materials in an easily accessible e-format, as well as offering resources for teachers to adapt to online education.

Fred Fransen, who holds a doctorate in Social Thought from the University of Chicago, and who in recent years been a consultant to major donors to education initiatives in the U.S., started exploring digital education in 2012 in collaboration with faculty from Florida State University Stavros Center for Economic Education.

Fred Fransen, who holds a doctorate in Social Thought from the University of Chicago, started exploring digital education in 2012 in collaboration with faculty from Florida State University Stavros Center for Economic Education.

“As we started reaching out to teachers, we were hearing, ‘I don’t just teach economics. I teach government too. Could you also put together a package of materials on American history?’” Fransen said. “One thing led to another and in 2015 we formed Certell to begin working with universities around the country.”

Even before the outbreak, education technology was growing rapidly. But as more people began looking for quality, affordable materials — all of Certell’s content is available for free due to the generosity of donors — the non-profit took off.

Even before the outbreak, education technology was growing rapidly. But as more people began looking for quality, affordable materials — all of Certell’s content is available for free due to the generosity of donors — the non-profit took off.

“We started getting a lot more service calls from teachers saying, ‘I need to use your materials. Can you walk me through your resources again?’ As we upped the amount of time spent helping teachers, we were also hearing their stories, and started some podcasts,” Fransen said. One new podcast was Certell Connects, a series devoted to teachers helping teachers manage some of the new demands of remote instruction.

Certell also started a new series called “Bell Ringers”— short, engaging, multimedia lessons — to provided historical context to America’s current challenges, connecting coronavirus-related issues to health and economic crises of the past.

Certell also started a new series called “Bell Ringers”— short, engaging, multimedia lessons — to provided historical context to America’s current challenges, connecting coronavirus-related issues to health and economic crises of the past.

“In late March we began to write social studies lessons that tied in with the past. We looked at COVID and Black Swans, occurrences that have a huge impact and are difficult to predict,” Fransen said. “An example is the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, which is currently the plot of a popular videogame, we featured a scene from the game.”

With technology as an enabler, Certell has been able to take quality content, creating it in one small part of the country, and distribute it all over the world, which has been vital under the pandemic.

The nonprofit has also fast-tracked a number of developments such as a dashboard which will enable teachers and administrators to measure engagement with and actual learning of materials presented. The dashboard will be able to decipher if students are actually reading assignments and watching videos.

"A drawback of technology has been teachers not really knowing if assignments are being done,” Fransen said. “Now they’ll be able to determine discussion groups based on who did the reading. It will also help teachers be more proactive, for example if they see a student did the homework but is not prepared.”

Fransen said e-learning can help close the education gap, especially for children in urban areas with poor access to high-quality teaching. And that the dashboard they’re developing could pave the way for a better educational experience in future — one that’s tailored to students’ individual needs. 

“Our services soon will be able to assess the progress of learners,” Fransen says. “Often, struggling individuals are identified too late, and with the work to catch up requiring enormous effort. Data can lead to improved learning experiences. When we can understand learners’ behaviors and activities, we can find correlations to their learning success or failure and help them become more successful in school.”

Listen to Certell.org co-founder Fred Fransen discuss how technology can help the process of learning, but cannot replace the role of the teacher and traditional classrooms.

Check out Certell's online courses and course materials here.

You can also follow Certell on Facebook page, as well as on Instagram and Twitter.
 

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BAMAR  PLASTICS,   SOUTH BEND

PASSING  INSPECTION
 

Bamar Plastics was awarded $5,000 for the development of a new product — The Step Saver. Heather Meixel, Bamar’s president and CEO, and her 15 employees primarily produce high-precision insert-molded automotive components, but they needed to pivot to recoup revenue lost to the pandemic.

The Step Saver helps Bamar’s employees more efficiently do their jobs. A mobile cart outfitted with quality-control instruments, The Step Saver can move freely throughout a factory to facilitate the inspection of parts. The device changed Bamar’s inspection process — and its adaptability makes it a potential game-changer for other industries as well.

The Step Saver is designed to help her employees — and, Meixel hopes, others in medical, electronics and education industries — more efficiently do their jobs. A mobile cart outfitted with quality-control instruments, The Step Saver can move freely throughout a factory to facilitate the inspection of parts. The device changed Bamar’s inspection process — and its adaptability makes it a potential game-changer for other industries as well.

“With The Step Saver, my inspection time went from two hours of my morning routine to just 45 minutes,” said Bamar Plastics’ Quality Engineer Nivedha Vijayakumar. “It’s saved a lot of time for me and everyone else. I can get the parts approved quicker, and if any defect is found, I can let the process technicians know, then and there. Time is money and it’s saved a lot of money for us.”

The Step Saver prototype features an antimicrobial plastic surface, a battery to keep the cart operational during an eight-hour workday, and it’s sturdy enough to withstand a run-in with a forklift. Drawing on input from a focus group of leaders from various industries, Bamar already has plans for additional technology and other features to refine The Step Saver.

Meixel envisions custom carts, as well as standard offerings with flexibility to allow businesses to adapt to them to their needs.

“The Step Saver will continue to evolve,” Meixel says. “We want to incorporate more technology. What I see is a product line, probably five or six different kinds of carts, and then customizable options. It’s pretty exciting.”

Listen to Bamar Plastics President and CEO Heather Meixel and Quality Engineer Nivedha Vijayakumar discuss how diversification has helped weather the coronavirus storm.

Find out more on Bamar Plastics here.

You can also follow Bamar Plastics on their Facebook page.

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SCARPE,  VALPARAISO

COOKING  UP  A  NEW  PLAN
 

Chris and Katrina Shoemaker’s upscale Italian restaurant Scarpe opened in downtown Valparaiso less than a year before the pandemic forced their new business to shut down.

“It all came to a screeching halt,” said Chris Shoemaker. “We basically had to shut down on March 15 and then we reopened on June 11. So, for three months we were closed.”

“It all came to a screeching halt,” said Chris Shoemaker. “We basically had to shut down on March 15 and then we reopened on June 11. So, for three months we were closed.”

Closed, but not idle. The Shoemakers, along with their son Adam, the restaurant’s sommelier and beverage director, and his partner, Olivia Fissé, Scarpe’s executive chef, reimagined their mission — and fast. As Chris Shoemaker says, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of adapting quickly in the coronavirus era.

“We needed to innovate and evolve or our restaurant was going to die,” Katrina Shoemaker said. “It was a simple choice.”

Immediately after the shutdown order was issued, the Shoemakers assessed what they had in their coolers and what they could repurpose or freeze. They developed take-and-bake options to sell through Shoe's Pizzeria, the family’s other restaurant, which continued to do a heathy carry-out business.

Immediately after the shutdown order was issued, the Shoemakers assessed what they had in their coolers and what they could repurpose or freeze. They developed take-and-bake options to sell through Shoe's Pizzeria, the family’s other restaurant, which continued to do a healthy carry-out business.

Scarpe’s soft drink cooler — emptied of its two-liter bottles — transformed into a “to-go fridge” that featured offerings like lasagna and tiramisu that customers would order to cook at home, along with their Shoe pizzas.

Establishing a presence at Valparaiso Market on Saturdays grew out of pandemic necessity. And Facebook Live also became a way to connect to their customers — and to find new ones.

Fissé, the executive chef, offered her expertise in vides helping home chefs learn to make homemade pasta and mozzarella cheese, and Adam shared his knowledge in pairing wines with food.

“We just tried to keep people engaged,” Adam Shoemaker said. “And when we reopened, we had people come in and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were here but we saw your videos and we are really interested that you make your own pasta and cheese.’ Our online presence and just showing people who we are, and what we do here has brought in some new people.”

Listen to the Shoemaker family, Chris and Katrina, and their son, Adam, discuss how they adapted and innovated their restaurant in order to survive.

Check out Scarpe's seasonal menu or make a reservation here.

You can also follow Scarpe on Facebook and Instagram.

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SIP & SHARE WINES,  INDIANAPOLIS

TOASTING  NEW  OPPORTUNITIES
 

Sip & Share Wines in Indianapolis began in 2016 as a home wine-tasting business representing Black and women winemakers. In 2019, Sip & Share released its own 7 Words Wine Collection. Yet one year — and one pandemic — later, Sip & Share owner Nicole Kearney found her meticulously calculated business plan in doubt. A purveyor of boutique, artisanal, vegan wine at events, festivals and popups, the company was left with excess supply purchased in preparation for the upcoming summer season.

Sip & Share Wines pivoted to hosting virtual wine tastings, engaging with enthusiasts across the country. Expanding the virtual tastings to create more “SipSperiences,” Kearney is passionate about serving overlooked and underrepresented wine lovers to create a more inclusive industry.

Sip & Share Wines pivoted to hosting virtual wine tastings, engaging with enthusiasts across the country. Expanding the virtual tastings to create more “SipSperiences,” the Black, woman-owned business is passionate about serving overlooked and underrepresented wine lovers to create a more inclusive industry.

“We’re about creating community with wine,” Kearney said. “The advantage is, it allows us to reach such a broader community. We don’t have a tasting room, so pre-pandemic we traveled. Before, we would just be like, ‘We’re going to be in California. We’re going to be at this particular tasting.’  And people would show up.”

For the virtual tastings, Sip & Share ships seven sample-sized bottles to participants along with instructions, such as which wines to chill, suggested cheese pairings and a tasting grid. Then the group gathers to learn the basics, sip some wine and get to know each other.

For the virtual tastings, Sip & Share ships seven sample-sized bottles to participants along with instructions, such as which wines to chill, suggested cheese pairings and a tasting grid. Then the group gathers to learn the basics, sip some wine and get to know each other.

“We do the tasting and education with it,” Kearney said. “Oh, it's super fun.”

The forced adjustment because of pandemic restrictions has not limited Sip & Share’s success. Forbes listed its Conjure Zinfandel as one of the 10 wines to drink for the summer. Kearney is hosting a virtual happy hour this week following an online conference, and she’s partnering with a Chicago-based artist to collaborate in leading a wine and painting event via Zoom.

Her goals go far beyond her own business.

“What I want to see in our community is that we are creating not only a community of wine enthusiasts and lovers,” Kearney said, “but also creating businesses that will have longevity three generations from now.”

Listen to how Sip & Share founder and vintner Nicole Kearney is building her own space in wine as a Black female entrepreneur — and why she will always bank with TCU.

Check out Sip & Share’s collections of brands and seasonal offerings here.

You can also follow Nicole Kearney and her team on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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UNITY GARDENS,  SOUTH BEND

SOWING  AND  REAPING
 

Unity Gardens exists to provide free, healthy food to people in need — promoting physical health through nutrition, social health through welcoming community gathering places and environmental health through urban green spaces.

To support its model, Unity Gardens relies on Farmers Market sales. The pandemic, at first, brought that revenue to a screeching halt.

“People stopped shopping almost overnight,” Unity Gardens executive director Sara Stewart said. “We took a 50 percent or more hit on our sales revenue — about half of our programming is supported through those sales.”

That forced the South Bend nonprofit to adjust on the fly.

“When you have to self-evaluate due to a crisis, I think that’s when you come up with either a) innovative solutions, or b) go back to core values,” Stewart said. “And some of both of that is what happened for us.”

Stewart and her partner in the garden and in life, Mitch Yaciw did something counterintuitive: they increased the amount of food they grew. The economic fallout of the pandemic, they knew, meant people would need what Unity Gardens provides even more. “Our very first reaction was, ‘People are going to be food insecure,’” Stewart said.

They also envisioned that many people would want to start growing their own food and tend their own private gardens. That turned out to be prescient — their investment in selling plants and seeds provided Unity Gardens with a boost.

“It was walk of faith,” Stewart said.

To foster that need, and even provide lessons that go beyond the garden, they produced online tutorials. “Educational snippets where Mitch teaches people how to plant that tomato or how to do a lasagna garden,” Steward said. “And that's been very helpful for families trying to connect to science curriculum or math or just gardening at home.”

They hired new “garden guides” to help self-harvesters, and hosted kids’ activities like individual insect hunting, along with providing veggie tasting tours, lessons in composting and meditation in the Zen garden.

Unity Gardens also started offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, a program that provides fresh, healthy food while supporting the gardens.

The result has been a flourishing of Unity Gardens as a safe, social gathering place.

“One Sunday morning I came out and there was a pastor out there doing his sermon, online, in the garden,” Yaciw said. “He felt like the garden was a place that was uplifting.”

Listen to how Unity Garden's founder and executive director Sara Stewart, and her partner, Mitch Yaciw have embodied the idea of caring for people by feeding them well.

Check out Unity Garden's store or make a donation here.
 
You can also follow Unity Gardens on Facebook and Twitter.

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