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SIFE teaches business skills, changes the world

SU's free enterprise student organization implements business initiatives that make a difference on campus, throughout central New York, and in countries as far away as Guatemala.

Syracuse University’s Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), an organization based in the Whitman School of Management, provides an opportunity for students to put what they learn in the classroom into action in a real-world environment. Students actively involved in SIFE projects develop important business skills such as leadership, teamwork and communication, while simultaneously using these skills to help others.

Photo: Courtesy of SU SIFE
Project Guatemala members turn a small stone house into a store for a Mayan women's weaving group in early 2011.

The organization includes around 85 students who work to help better the SU, the community and the world through free enterprise projects and community initiatives. SIFE is an international, non-profit organization that facilitates partnerships between students and businesses in order to teach students skills that will help them become tomorrow's socially responsible business leaders. The organization exists on 1,600 college campuses across 38 countries, according to SIFE’s website, with 57,000 active students involved.

SIFE came to the SU campus six years ago. Since then, the team has gone to the SIFE National Competition every year, and placed second in 2010 and fourth in 2011. Currently, the organization has up to 10 project teams that work on seven established projects and several projects that are in exploratory stages.

All of SIFE’s initial projects were based in the Syracuse community, said Amanda Nicholson, a marketing and retail management professor at Whitman and the SIFE faculty advisor. Now, SIFE projects are on campus, in the community, and across seas. Current projects include:

  • The Chadwick Residence, a home for transitional women on the South Side where SIFE works with the women to teach them basic life skills
  • COW, or Converting Organic Waste, an effort to build an anaerobic digester on the SU campus to dispose of food waste
  • Project Guatemala, a partnership with Mayan weaving groups in Guatemala.
  • DOT, or Do One Thing, a campaign that encourages environmental, economic and social sustainability and action.

For a complete list of projects, visit SU SIFE's website.

SIFE has traveled to Guatemala twice so far to help women weaving groups establish their own businesses, bringing ideas for items that could be made and brought back to be sold in the SU bookstore, Nicholson said. SIFE also has special sales in academic buildings and around the community to promote and sell the products. The organization works through a fair trade to ensure that the women receive all profits that SIFE sends them. SIFE is planning another trip to Guatemala early next year to check up on the store they set up during the last visit.

DOT, or Do One Thing One, is of SIFE’s newest projects is . Advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi launched the campaign originally as a sustainability initiative at Wal-Mart, but decided to expand to the college market. The SIFE programs at SU and William and Mary College were the first to adopt the campaign.

“It really is a campaign that encourages individuals, mostly students, but also faculty and staff on college campuses, to do one thing that they’re passionate about to improve economic, social, or environmental sustainability,” Josh Fishman, project leader for the DOT campaign, explained. The most common DOT on the SU campus is to use reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones, Fishman said.

SIFE was the official partner of SU Orange Central this year, and had a table in Schine Student Center during homecoming week to promote the campaign and encourage passers-by to think of their own DOTs. The organization demonstrated three different DOTs that students could take part in, with one from each category.

Students who visited the table were encouraged to taste wate from two different cups and guess which was bottled and which was filtered from the tap. According to Fishman, approximately 65 percent of students and staff could not tell the difference. This demonstrated the idea that it is tough to notice a difference in taste and encouraged students to be more environmentally conscious by buying less bottled water.

SIFE members also encouraged passing students to make cards for Veteran’s Day, which SIFE then donated to local veterans. A donation jar for the World Wildlife Fund was also at the table. SIFE is matching the amount of funds raised during tabling and sending a donation to the WWF.

Last November, the team brought students together to work with Saatchi and Saatchi to figure out how to advertise the DOT campaign on campus. In the spring, they did a soft launch, and this semester was the official launch. SIFE’s goal is to have 20,000 DOTs on the SU campus and one million across the country, Fishman said. To do this, SIFE is working to expand the campaign to other schools.

“Syracuse University SIFE was really passionate about this project because it really meets our mission statement for social entrepreneurship,” Fishman said.

SIFE will also be in the Carrier Dome for every men’s basketball home game this season, starting Nov. 29 to spread the word about the DOT campaign. Also, every ticket envelope disbursed at the Carrier Dome box office will soon be sealed with a DOT sticker to promote the initiative to the greater Syracuse community.

DOTs entered on the SU campus

SIFE collects DOTs from students whenever the organization has a table in Schine. This breakdown represents all the DOTs entered on campus since the campaign started nearly one year ago.

Nicholson said that the most meaningful things that students get out of their work with the organization are leadership skills and a look at what's going on in the world around them.

“It takes us out of our own very privileged bubble of where we live, and into lots of other bigger bubbles where a lot of other people live who are in very different positions from ourselves,” Nicholson said.

SIFE faces challenges similar to those common in any business setting, such as having people who join for the wrong reasons, dealing with members who are not willing to put in the work, working within the rules and regulations of a large university and constant cash flow problems, Nicholson said. The organization is currently going through the process of being recognized as a 501(c)3 -- a tax exempt, non-profit association -- which would provide more opportunities for grants and other sources of funding.

Looking to the future, Nicholson’s greatest hope is for SIFE to become financially secure and sustainable and that other faculty members continue to support the organization so that it will have continued success.

“Most of the students after they graduate, they’ll say, ‘Of all the things I learned at SU, this is the stuff I remember the most.’ And you know, that’s life. You remember what you do. Sometimes you don’t remember what you memorized for a test, but you remember what you do.”

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