Swarthmore Students Win Contest to Boost Locally Owned Businesses

By Ryan Dougherty
Savannah Saunders ’16

Savannah Saunders '16

A team of Swarthmore students will receive up to $20,000 for recently finishing first in the Lend for Philly contest, but locally owned businesses could be the big winners.

The contest sent students from 10 Philly-area schools into the community to solicit information from and map locally owned businesses on a smartphone app. The Swarthmore team held first place as the deadline approached but feared a late push from a familiar (and friendly) foe.

“Haverford had mapped dozens of businesses at the last minute, and it looked as though were close to catching us,” says Savannah Saunders ’16, of Plantation, Fla.

So Saunders and her team went all out to map 80 businesses on the last day, raising their total to 326 and cementing victory. The team received $5,000 in seed money to launch a campus microfinance initiative, through which it will issue loans and/or training services to local small businesses, and is applying for an additional $15,000.

“As college students, we have unique perspectives on certain issues,” says Saunders, “so campus-based microfinance initiatives may find value in funding projects overlooked by other investors.”

The Swarthmore students belong to the College’s Social Entrepreneurship Hub, co-led by Yohan Sumathipala ’16, an economics major from Ashburn, Va., and Meiri Anto ’16, an economics and computer science major from Atherton, Calif. Jennifer Magee, associate director for student programs in the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, serves as their advisor.

Mapping entailed students forming pairs and knocking on doors from Center City Philadelphia to Baltimore Pike, a main thoroughfare near campus, essentially “anywhere we could find small businesses,” Saunders says. They collected information such as the businesses’ number of employees and greatest need and provided data on which other local stakeholders can follow up. In total, 87 students interviewed 637 businesses for Lend for Philly. 

An initiative of Lend for America, Lend for Philly allows students to acquire skills in negotiation, finance, and management while they help entrepreneurs in their communities with the challenges of job creation, financial self-sufficiency, and enterprise development. It’s about giving – and getting – back. “It cultivates talent, while creating lasting connections between millennials and the community,” says Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program director of the Knight Foundation, which supports the program. “It helps spark the kind of commitment that’s necessary for people to attach to a particular place and help shape it.”