UND and local business community launch new round of student focused partnerships

UND and local business community launch new round of student focused partnerships

Three UND students—Maura Ferguson (left), Carter Razink and Anisa Holwerda (not pictured)—have been selected for the 2019 Main Street GF Challenge. Their ideas for improving Grand Forks earned a $5,000 prize and support from the entrepreneurial community. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Collin T. Hanson, executive director for Evolve Grand Forks, is excited to bring the Main Street GF Challenge back for version 2.0, and it’s contagious.

Three finalists from UND were selected this year – each of them enthusiastic to see where their community-bettering ideas can go with $5,000 and backing of civic leaders and other local professionals.

“We’ve learned so much,” Hanson said of the first Main Street GF Challenge. Launched last June, the first iteration had nine students (six from UND and three from area high schools) taking on a variety of tasks. “While it was a six-month program, we’re very happy to see the trajectory of some projects go far beyond that.”

Seeing where students went with ideas last year helped the review committee narrow this year’s finalists.

“We initially wanted six winners, but seven of them were all worthy,” he said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We’ll make it work.’”

The UND student Challengers receive $5,000 and six months membership to Evolve’s 701 Coworking space on South Third Street. They’ll also pair up with civic advisers and many others in the city’s entrepreneurial community, including UND’s Center for Innovation (CFI). Same as last year, high school winners receive $3,000 and a $2,000 scholarship to UND.

This year, Tyler Sletten of the CFI will provide entrepreneurial coaching and a connection to UND. He can aid students in learning customer discovery and understanding product-market fit all the way to registering a business and utilizing local funding sources.

“The UND Center for Innovation is thrilled to be a lead sponsor of the Challenge, providing funding and coaching for the finalists,” Sletten said. “We will help them establish an actionable, sustainable plan for success. It’s also a great way to introduce them to our incubator, our student programming and many other offerings at the Center.”

Razink, a sophomore, has been working on an app with friends from his native Fargo. Through the Challenge, he wants to bring “Webblen” to Grand Forks – creating community involvement through incentive and mobile integration. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

The Challengers

Fargo, N.D., native Carter Razink came to UND with his mind set on physics and math, but his interest in cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies are what got him involved in the Main Street GF Challenge.

Razink serves as the blockchain developer of “Webblen,” a mobile application that incentivizes community involvement. The Fargo-based group behind the app sought to create a social economy – a one-stop shop for people interested in what’s happening around the community. When a user participates in a sponsored event, through the app, they’re paid in tokens. Razink’s task is to tie those tokens to the Ethereum blockchain.

“We see Webblen as the bridge between not knowing about certain events or activities and getting involved,” Razink, who’s now a sophomore, said.

Being selected for the 2019 Main Street GF Challenge gives Webblen a chance to expand from Fargo to Grand Forks.

“With Webblen, our goal is to show how tech can be a force for good,” he said. “We always hear about social media addiction and the negative impacts. We want to flip that and show Grand Forks what Webblen can do to engage people.”

Ferguson’s experiences as a mother informed the way she wanted to impact the community. She wants to create environments where young children feel safe to ask questions and celebrate differences. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Creating allies

Maura Ferguson’s idea was borne out of her experience as a mother. As her two oldest children, ages nine and seven, transitioned to public schooling from private, there were a lot of questions.

“My daughter said there was a girl in her class that was in a wheelchair and she wanted to play with her at recess,” Ferguson said. “It wasn’t something she had experienced at nine years old and wanted to connect with her. I told her to ask the child’s parents or aide and see what they thought.”

Ferguson’s daughter learned that her classmate liked to play catch, and a connection was made.

That moment, and other similar instances throughout the school year, sparked an idea that didn’t seem like an idea at the time, as to her it was merely another aspect of parenting.

“When I thought about it, I realized my kids weren’t the only ones experiencing this,” she said. “I want to equip kids with ways to navigate because it’s uncomfortable talking about differences, but it’s important to learn about them and celebrate them, too.”

Ferguson wants to instill a culture of “allyship” in the community. Through the Challenge, she wants to holistically address differences by giving kids a space to ask questions and break down barriers by getting to know people, making connections and learning how to be active allies for one another.

“Allyship isn’t something you get to say, or hold as a title. It’s an active practice,” she said. “The more we can do to reduce fear and equip this generation to have hard conversations, I think the better it will be for everyone.”

She plans to utilize funds for course materials, professional development experiences and establishing programming at the local level.

Soon-to-be-master’s student Holwerda wants to create a first for the state through her ideas for an indoor dog park. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

All paws on deck

Born and raised in Grand Forks, Anisa Holwerda understands the “bipolar” nature of the region’s weather. The cold-snap winters and peaks of summer heat are tough on everyone. It can be even worse for our furry companions.

When Holwerda was at last year’s Longest Table event, she sat across from some influential community members talking about ways Grand Forks can become a stronger community.

“They were batting off a bunch of great ideas like the new public library and a children’s museum,” Holwerda recalled. “I said, what about a dog park.”

The idea started building around what Holwerda wanted for her own pet – a ten-pound canine that easily gets too cold or overheated. Grand Forks has outdoor dog parks, but spring flooding took the Lincoln Park location offline. The recent UND graduate and soon-to-be-master’s student understands how difficult things can be for people who don’t have yards or appropriate spaces for their pets.

Holwerda’s plan is to develop the first indoor, environmentally regulated dog park in the state.

Current plans are to start engaging community members, gauging their interest and seeing how far things can go through establishing a Kickstarter fund for the project. Establishing a physical space and potential business requires decent capital.

“I’m hoping once this kicks off, we can keep the fundraising going and even give back to the community,” Holwerda said. “I’d like to give donations to the Humane Society or create events to engage dog-owners.”