NC State student team wins $50,000 Prize for Innovation for Pennies 4 Progress

Shoppers are often asked if they would like to donate a dollar to support a charity while at the checkout counter, or to drop spare change into a jar at the coffee shop or diner to support a local cause. The merchant, then, needs to get those contributions to the charity. But a common question, according to a team of NC State undergraduate students, is, “Where does all this loose change go?”

That team of business and engineering students is developing a simple and fast way for local shoppers and merchants to ‘round up to the next dollar’ when making a purchase via credit or debit card – and to know exactly where their money is going. These virtual pennies add up fast and will support local classrooms and schools, team members say.

Helping schools raise funds

The students' social entrepreneurship venture – Pennies 4 Progress – received a significant financial boost of its own when it won a $50,000 SECU Emerging Issues Prize for Innovation award at NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues’ annual forum held February 10 and 11, 2014, at the Raleigh Convention Center. Theirs was one of four $50,000 prizes awarded by the Institute, in partnership with the State Employees Credit Union, as part of the forum.

In line with the Institute’s focus this year on “Teachers and the Great Economic Debate,” students at two and four year universities were challenged to develop new and innovative ways to support the state’s K-12 teachers, with an emphasis on health, education, environments and economy.

"Pennies 4 Progress answered the economy-focused challenge, 'How can schools raise new revenues to offset increasingly restrictive resources?',” said Ryan O’Donnell, a junior majoring in economics at the NC State University Poole College of Management and member of the start-up’s leadership team.

Business and social value

The challenge was a good fit for Pennies 4 Progress, he said, as the team’s next step is to develop the partnerships and technology that will drive their fundraising system, and then to get it into the hands of merchants across the state. At the same time, they are building relationships with local and national leaders in non-profits, business and education.

They honed in on education because they wanted to focus their impact on one cause and the challenge fit so well with their mission, which is to “revolutionize how we fund social good,” O’Donnell said.

“Education is a great place to start sending pennies, especially now in North Carolina,” he said. Funding education, state-wide and beyond, was the topic for this year's Emerging Issues Forum.

Sending pennies through shopper’s cards to schools is made possible because of emerging mobile point-of-sale and payment processing technologies, O'Donnell said. Once funds accumulate, they will be accessible to local teachers and school administrators through a simple online grant-making process.

The prize money will support further development and implementation of the technology that will take care of processing the ‘rounding up’ at the point of sale and transferring the donated funds to local classrooms and schools.

“We will be providing our participating merchants an iOS-based point-of-sale system, so there will be next to no cost to them for participating in this charitable program,” O’Donnell said. This point-of-sale system will help stores track orders, sales, and manage things like receipts, providing real business value in addition to social value.

“Providing business and social value is important,” O’Donnell said, adding, "Pennies 4 Progress aims to be good for businesses, customers, and classrooms.” The startup is targeting popular local retailers who would benefit from a mobile point-of-sale system to improve their store operations as well as to support local classrooms.

Start-ups: it's the people

Pennies 4 Progress currently has four lead team members: O’Donnell; Brandon Narybouth, also a junior majoring in economics in Poole College; Shreye Saxena, a junior in electrical and computer engineering and Joseph Moo-Young, a junior in textile engineering, in NC State's colleges of engineering and textiles, respectively.

Each brings his particular set of skills and passions to the start-up team, Saxena said, noting that “start-ups are people, not ideas." 

The team members also are tapping a wide range of resources available for entrepreneurial students at NC State. The Garage, located on NC State’s Centennial Campus, serves as their headquarters. Students in two Poole College marketing courses taught by Patrice Nealon, marketing lecturer, are conducting market research as part of their course projects. “Specifically, they will provide additional research on donor behavior and potential technology and business partners,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell himself is learning more about business processes through his entrepreneurship concentration courses – Managing the Growth Venture, Finance and Accounting for Entrepreneurship, and New Venture Planning – taught by Lewis Sheats, entrepreneurship lecturer in Poole College. The team also benefits from support provided through the Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI) at NC State, the The Caldwell Fellows alumni network, and the mentorship of Dr. Janice Odom, director of The Caldwell Fellows program.

NC State: empowering students

“The undergraduate entrepreneurship resources at NC State are incredible at empowering students to launch a scalable company,” O’Donnell said. “Between Lewis Sheats' mentoring, the courses, and collaboration with EI and the Raleigh startup community, Pennies 4 Progress is positioned to do great things.”

Odom noted that five members of the two winning teams from NC State are Caldwell Fellows. O’Donnell, Joseph Moo-Young and Shreye Saxena are with Pennies 4 Progress. Shrey Satpathy and Sean Kramer are with Teacher Loop, the second NC State team that received a $50,000 SECU Emerging Issues Prize for Innovation award for the online open-source peer-reviewed platform that they are creating to help teachers share learning aids.

“The purpose of The Caldwell Fellows is to develop leaders for social change,” Odom said. “The Fellows are a learning community dedicated to investing intellect, creativity and collaboration to the challenging work of social progress. The P4P and Teacher Loop teams are stellar examples of the Fellows' rigor and innovation,” she said.

“We are exceedingly proud of Ryan and the work he and his team have done to create Pennies 4 Progress,” said Dr. Ira Weiss, dean of the Poole College. “They reflect the commitment of NC State and Poole College to respond to the grand challenges of society through our teaching, research and outreach. Support from the State Employees Credit Union and NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues is evidence of the innovation and creativity expressed by the Pennies 4 Progress team and the other award recipients," he said. 

The two additional $50,000 awards went to The Beginning Teaching Matters Project, led by a team at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington seeking to address issues of teacher retention, and to MYHEALTHED, an online health education course tailored to the individual needs of high school students being created by a team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pennies 4 Progress previously won the inaugural University of North Carolina Social Business Plan Competition in 2012. O’Donnell and his team members also participated in the Hong Kong PolyU Global Student Challenge in 2013.

Learn more

What is Pennies 4 Progress? (video)

Pennies 4 Progress Start-Up Team Credits a Supportive Entrepreneurship Community at NC State

NC State Student team wins inaugural social business plan competition

Emerging Issues Forum: Teachers and the Great Economic Debate and the other competition winners.

About the 29th Annual Emerging Issues Forum: Teachers and the Great Economic Debate

Without highly effective educators, North Carolina’s students will be unprepared for meaningful, well-paying careers, and our state runs the risk of operating without a globally competitive workforce. Worldwide, nationwide and statewide stakeholders met February 10-11, 2014 at the Raleigh Convention Center to discuss opportunities to recruit, retain, and support world-class teachers for every classroom in North Carolina. 

In the Photo:

From left to right: NC State Chancellor Randall Woodson; Shreye Saxena, Cary, N.C.; Brandon Narybouth, Charlotte, N.C.; Joseph Moo-Young, Charlotte and Durham, N.C., Ryan O’Donnell, High Point and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and SECU Foundation Chairman McKinley Wooten. Photo: courtesy of the Institute for Emerging Issues.



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