Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
YenAra, a business concept for African artisanal backpacks, won the SwatTank Student Innovation Competition on Saturday, April 2. The concept was presented by Sedinam Worlanyo ‘17 and Bolutife Fakoya ‘17 in the 17th annual Jonathan R. Lax ‘71 Conference on Entrepreneurship. In addition to winning the main $3,000 prize, YenAra also won the Best Poster and Best Presentation Awards.
Made by an artisan in Ghana, each backpack has unique and colorful patterns based on West African designs. They also have QR codes which link to the specific artisan who crafted the backpack. For marketing, YenAra uses campus ambassadors to carry around the bag, a technique called “social selling.” They are also adopting an e-commerce platform on their website.
Priced at $55, the YenAra backpacks are targeted to college students.
“All backpacks can carry a 15-inch MacBook Pro,” Fakoya said in the presentation.
$30 of each sale will be given to various costs such as labor, shipping, and materials. YenAra plans to make a profit of $25 for each backpack, and break even in three years. They then hope to employ seven or eight more artisans to fulfill their projected growth. Worlanyo and Fakoya also want to start the YenAra Foundation, which will use profits from sales to help provide skills to Ghanaians also learning to be artisans.
Judging the competition were Baroness Glenys Thornton, Chris Leinberger ‘72 and Nick Torres. Board of Managers member Harold “Koof” Kalkstein ‘78 served as a moderator.
“This is over and above what [students] do normally, and is impressive. […] As an alum, I wish this was here back then. Swarthmore was then very disconnected from the world back 30 years ago. This is a major step forward,” Leinberger said.
Second place for the competition went to AlumGo, an online service to link college students and alumni in a method similar to hospitality application Airbnb. For example, a Swarthmore alum living in Paris will be able to host students or alum wishing to stay in that city. AlumGo’s founders are Rida Hassan ‘18, Shruti Pal ‘18, Katherine Pemberton ‘18 and Michael Lutzker ‘19. They often emphasized in their presentation the “emotional connection and loyalty” among college alumni that is the driving force behind the AlumGo concept. AlumGo was praised as the “far and away the best concept” by the judges.
“I won’t put this as a ‘Facebook’ category, but it is one one rung beneath it,” said Leinberger.
Third place went to Launchpad, a service that seeks to link high school students with short-duration externship programs. The team comprised of Kwate Quartey ‘19, Min Zhong ‘19, Neeraj Shah ‘19, Omri Gal ‘19, Robert Eppley ‘19 and William Coglan ‘19. They sought to start such an externship program with private schools, and then expand to public schools.
“The need is in public schools, where networking is a huge disadvantage. That’s why disadvantaged students are disadvantaged,” said Leinberger.
The SwatTank process started in September, and participants had to create a business concept that incorporated the “business model canvas,” a strategic and entrepreneurial tool. This was a change from previous years, where a full business plan was required. The more in-depth business plan was often seen as an entry barrier.
“Because we’ve worked together for so long on this, and put in a lot of time and effort, it was an emotional moment. We were very happy to be there, to participate, to engage,” Fakoya said.
In addition to lowering entry barriers to the competition, teams were paired with mentors and had to engage in review and reflection.
“We are really grateful for how invested our alumna mentor Sabrina Moyle was throughout our entire SwatTank process. We definitely could not have won without her insight and support,” said Worlanyo in a statement.
SwatTank was part of the larger Lax Conference held until the afternoon. The Lax Conference was founded by Jonathan Lax ‘71, an entrepreneur who created an endowment for the conference in his bequest in 1996. This year’s Lax Conference focused on social entrepreneurship and innovation.
Jonathan Lax’s brother, Gerry Lax ‘74, attended this year’s conference and gave it’s welcome speech. While he was disappointed by the low number of students attending, he was glad that many alumni filled Sci 101 to watch the SwatTank competition.
“I think one thing may be overlooked — every year you see a number of young alums that come back here for the opportunity to network. So, I recognize that that networking opportunity is just as important as it is for the students who are here as undergraduates,” said Lax.
Zoe Kyaw ‘19 contributed to this report.
Correction 4/6: The $30 from each sale is for cost of goods sold, such as labor and shipping, not just to the artisan.