Bijal Desai (left), M.B.A. ’08, was among the team members helping Elizabeth Ketcher, founder and executive director of StudioSTL, win the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition’s $35,000 first prize. StudioSTL helps urban youth express themselves and gain confidence through writing. For her contributions, Desai was awarded the student prize. (Photo by Joe Angeles)
Teaming Up to Help Urban Teens

By Terri Nappier

While discovering her own place in the nonprofit world, Bijal Desai is helping others find theirs.

As an M.B.A. student focused on social entrepreneurship, Desai volunteered with Elizabeth Ketcher, founder and executive director of StudioSTL. Founded in May 2006, StudioSTL partners writers, artists, and educators with area youth on writing and publishing projects to help them express themselves with confidence and clarity, while building skills. At this time, the organization works with students in the City of St. Louis, Wellston, and Rockwood school districts.

After operating a year, Ketcher came to the Olin Business School and the Taylor Community Consulting Program (TCCP) in spring 2007 for advice on how to secure financing to grow. TCCP is a class connecting Olin students to St. Louis–area nonprofits that need help with a business project, and it first brought Ketcher and Desai together.

Desai, who was a student in the Taylor Program that spring, was matched with StudioSTL. To the StudioSTL team, she brought six years of corporate experience in marketing and operations for companies such as Pfizer and IRI (consulting for Pepsi), as well as several years as a volunteer helping nonprofits with strategy and marketing. Her TCCP team’s assignment was to determine a financial assessment and strategy for StudioSTL. While working with three finance students (two graduate, one undergraduate), Desai discovered that, in addition to figuring financials, they also needed to prioritize the organization’s growth.

“Elizabeth had the funding goals,” Desai says, “but a timeline and growth strategy were missing. So we worked on that first.”

In doing so, the group determined how future funding could support StudioSTL’s goals.

“Bijal’s enthusiasm for StudioSTL, as well as her ability to blend practical business solutions with sincere compassion for the multifaceted needs of youth, made quite an impression on me,” Ketcher says. “Her and the team’s quick grasp of our situation led to the development of a three-year outline of a strategy that later became the foundation of our organization’s five-year plan.”

“Bijal’s … ability to blend practical business solutions with … compassion for the multifaceted needs of youth, made quite an impression on me.”

To complement the TCCP course, Desai also set up an independent study in operations in the social sector. “I knew it would be very different from the for-profit world of manufacturing and logistics and production and supply chain,” Desai says.

As part of her independent course, she again worked with StudioSTL.

“Bijal interviewed me and other StudioSTL members and then created a comprehensive start-up operations manual,” Ketcher says. “We refer to it constantly as we grow and confront new issues, including budgeting and finance, board transitions, and resource development.”

Hoping that “success begets success,” Desai approached Ketcher in fall 2007 about entering the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition (SEIC). Sponsored by the University’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the annual competition, running September through April, awards a $35,000 YouthBridge Award to the winner.

“Bijal and her colleague, David Ramirez, advised me of our organization’s need for a five-year strategic plan and the difficultly in creating such a plan in the absence of a competition,” Ketcher says. “Despite a pressure-packed schedule, Bijal joined our team and advised our group at every juncture.”

In addition to Desai and Ramirez, M.B.A. ’07, who also is Desai’s fiancé, the competition team included alumna Leslie Evans, A.B. ’06; Emma O’Brien, a graduate of the University of Illinois; and Wendy Leem, a Saint Louis University senior finance major.

In the first round of the multi-phase SEIC, Ketcher submitted the team’s idea to IdeaBounce, giving a two-minute presentation to judges for initial feedback.

Next, she submitted the executive summary of the project, where the team identified the community need, organization solution, and implementation plan. Based on the summary, StudioSTL was selected a semifinalist.

The team then worked on an ‘elevator pitch,’ delving more into the overall business plan. Ketcher made the presentation to a panel of judges, and again StudioSTL was selected to advance.

In the final phase, the team pulled together a complete business/sustainability plan. “One of the goals of the competition is to make sure organizations have a plan to continue serving the community,” Desai says.

After StudioSTL turned in its sustainability plan, Ketcher gave a final presentation. Both elements were judged together.

Ketcher must have done well; out of a field of 24 original entrants, StudioSTL won the $35,000 YouthBridge Award. For her contributions, Desai won the $5,000 student award.

“Every year, the judges choose a student winner,” Desai says, “but I feel as if that award was StudioSTL’s, too, because the entire team worked on the plan.”

Most important, Desai says, it’s about touching children’s lives. StudioSTL gives youth an outlet for expression, and to date is working on publishing a second anthology of student writings. Students also write for and publish their own newspapers and magazines. They have published a book of poetry, too.

“The overall goal of the plan is to open a writing center, where youth from these different neighborhoods can come,” Desai says. Ketcher praises Desai’s work and influence: “We are now able to build our organizational capacity and serve more St. Louis youth. We are grateful to her beyond words.”

As the former president of Olin’s Net Impact—a student organization that promotes using business to create a better world—Desai says that she’s grown the most in knowing how to create an organization from an operations and marketing standpoint.

Desai spent this past summer after graduating helping another recent graduate, Stephanie Kilstein, M.S.W. ’08, start Shearwater Education Foundation. The foundation, which aims to re-engage disconnected youth through a quality education and opportunities to build social and economic capital, is planning to open Shearwater High School in August 2009.

Kilstein developed the model based on her social work, educational, and programmatic experience, and Desai offered the organizational planning and business operations expertise.

“I was very deliberate in knowing that I wanted to come back [to school] and transition into the nonprofit world,” Desai says.

And this experience is yet another step on Desai’s path, one that may lead to helping even more people find their way.

Terri Nappier is editor of this magazine.