Sylvia Revoir ’22 and her teammates on the Opus College of Business Marketing 430 course capstone project had hit a snag. She, along with fellow seniors Sarah Byington ’22, Cam Sedlack ’22, Chloe McEnelly ’22 and Ben Martel ’22, tackled a difficult task related to the university’s mission to advance the common good.
Their goal: to create a comprehensive marketing plan for We Share Solar, a division of the nonprofit We Care Solar. The plan would focus on how to successfully open a new business-to-consumer channel for the Solar Suitcase, a stand-alone solar electric system offered by the company’s parent organization.
Over the past 11 years, Solar Suitcases have brought essential lighting and electricity to more than 7,100 health centers in 49 low- and middle-income countries.
We Share Solar provides education on the environmental benefits of solar energy for high school or college students. Traditionally, the nonprofit reached students through partner schools and is now expanding to offer solar education materials directly to any interested student.
With this new way to go to market, called Power2Share, students collect the $2,500 needed to build a solar suitcase, deliver it to its destination (typically rural schools, orphanages, and youth sites in refugee camps ) and provide training for staff who will be using the solar case.
“What we’re talking about is not a lot of money,” said Gigi Goldman, co-founder of We Share Solar. “For a young person and for a science project, that seems like a lot of money. It just depends on the lens you use to watch it.
There has been demonstrated interest in We Share Solar’s business-to-business model, with 32,000 US students learning about solar electricity and building systems for more than 325,000 teachers and students living in energy-poor areas of the world .
We Share Solar was already trying to figure out how to directly appeal to high school and college students. However, the organization needed to figure out how to successfully reach a younger demographic instead of its typical target audience of teachers and funders.
“The way we were going was a very boring adult and parenting approach to: ‘Participate in We Share Solar’s Power2Share to build your resume for college applications; if you like Lego robotics, you’ll enjoy building this,” Goldman said. “Everything was very rigid and selfish.”
To carry out the Capstone project, the course team of marketing professor Gino Giovannelli had to adapt quickly. They couldn’t spend the whole semester trying to figure out We Care Solar and We Share Solar; they had a deliverable in the fourth week of the course.
“It was a form of entrepreneurship. There was no clue here – we were making it up as we went,” Goldman said. “We tried to understand together [with the St. Thomas team] … no roadmap. This is what entrepreneurship looks like; in our case, it is social entrepreneurship.
Goldman said social entrepreneurship, in some ways, is even more complicated than for-profit entrepreneurship, due to the need to complete the job while also figuring out how to finance the work.
To fully understand We Share Solar, the Marketing 430 team went through the Power2Share program themselves, including doing the hands-on work of building solar cases.
“This project had academic rigor and it challenged the students intellectually from a learning perspective, but it played right into their hearts and gave them boundless energy and excitement to dedicate time to a difficult project,” said Giovannelli.
The Marketing 430 team researched and tried many different angles, but couldn’t solve the challenge. They turned to Giovannelli.
“I’ve never seen a team utter the words: ‘We feel defeated’,” Giovannelli said. “We went to a conference room and just chatted. … I grew as a teacher that day. I said, ‘The best thing I can tell you is that this is how it goes. There are days in business when you feel defeated. The good news is that the sun will rise tomorrow. Sometimes with a good night’s sleep and a few episodes of a favorite show, you can get a whole new outlook on things.
‘You did not understand anything’
From the analysis of the research results, the Marketing 430 team determined that the way to connect directly with students was to show the impact of solar suitcases.
For We Share Solar, this changed everything from the language used to the structure of the organization’s website.
“It turned our heads,” Goldman said. “We came back and let go of everything we started and started again.”
Armed with the new research-based direction, the Marketing 430 team then developed a comprehensive marketing plan.
Under the plan, the Marketing 430 prioritized tactics ranging from the We Share Solar website to display advertising, search, email, social media and mobile digital marketing.
We Share Solar began implementing the plan this month.
“It fit our timing perfectly,” Goldman said. “After completing the program, we were scratching our heads and wondering how to go to market.”
Late in the spring semester, Giovannelli, Goldman and the Marketing 430 team volunteered with more than 60 students from Hopkins West Junior High School to build nine solar suitcases that will light up classrooms that can accommodate up to 5,000 students in Africa.
“I couldn’t have ended my college career any better,” Revoir said. “I loved my team and we loved working with Gigi and Gino on this amazing project. We created an amazing presentation and report, but we loved doing it because we really supported what we were doing. We believed in this organization and we felt good doing it for a good cause, our efforts meant so much more, knowing that what we were doing was going to be considered and that we were a small part of We Share Solar.