Can a T-Shirt Have Societal Impact?
First-year students explore how even a small business can make choices with real-world consequences.
Every business decision could have an impact on the local community or the wider world. That’s a lesson that some business students at the University of Richmond in Virginia are learning this year during their very first semester on campus.
They’re part of Endeavor RSB, a living-learning community at the Robins School of Business where first-year students live in the same dorm, take integrated courses in an intentional curriculum, and participate together in extracurricular activities. Every year, Endeavor RSB students master introductory business concepts, explore potential business careers, and learn about services and opportunities available at the school. The 38 people in this year’s cohort are a mix of U.S. and international students, including five who are participating virtually from around the globe.
Because the 2020–2021 theme for Endeavor RSB is “Societal Impact Through Business,” this year’s students also are discovering how a business decision can have real-world consequences and how they can use their own careers to become forces for good. And they began learning that lesson with a project that launched in the fall semester.
Designing for Impact
The project was a competition for students to design a T-shirt that would symbolize the program’s focus. T-shirts with the winning design would be printed and distributed to all members of the living-learning community, with the school absorbing the cost of production.
Students were divided into five teams of between five and eight students each, with remote students forming their own team. Each group came up with its own T-shirt design, identified sourcing, and calculated how the manufacture of the T-shirt could support local and minority businesses. Students were given basic parameters and a maximum budget before beginning the project.
As the teams refined their designs, they both worked together and competed with each other. For instance, says Saif Mehkari, associate professor of economics, students solicited input from their dormmates to get feedback on their designs. Eventually, students in the program voted on the winning entry via an online survey. “They live in the same residence hall together, so apparently there was some lobbying for votes,” Mehkari adds.
Each group chose to highlight different aspects of the program, school, or theme. One group designed a shirt that featured red-pepper gouda soup, which is sold at a café within the business school and is a favorite among students. Another team wanted to create a series of unique tie-dyed shirts, each one embellished with a handmade spider logo to symbolize the University of Richmond’s mascot. This team also wanted to support two different businesses that provided tie-dyeing and printing services.
Students learned how to make a pitch, how to make decisions as a collective, and how to think more deeply about business.
“One of the groups included the design of the ceiling of the room in which they met every Monday night,” says Mehkari. “To them, that was an important part of their identity, especially during COVID-19 times, as that was the only place where they could come together as a community.”
The winning design, which also included the spider logo, featured a globe as a way to reflect the international nature of the cohort. The T-shirts were manufactured locally by a minority-owned business using sustainable products. Mehkari explains that the businesses were first narrowed down to those that were approved to include the spider logo on a T-shirt. (The logo is maintained by the communications office, and there are strict policies governing its usage.) He adds, “We then narrowed it down further to Richmond businesses, and then from there picked a minority business.”
Learning Valuable Lessons
The project was designed to provide students with a number of takeaways. For example, says Mehkari, students honed a variety of skills: how to make a pitch, how to make decisions as a collective, how to think more deeply about business, and how to understand tradeoffs.
“The students had to decide on everything, from the vendor to the design to the material to the color, all with a budget cap,” he says. “This led to interesting questions, such as, Should we use two colors or a nicer T-shirt material? Should we go to a large vendor for a cheaper price or support a local small business?”
At the same time, the project created a sense of community among students who have been separated by the pandemic, says Cassandra Marshall, associate professor of finance. Not only are some students living in Richmond and some in remote locations, but many classes are being held across the University of Richmond campus instead of within the halls of the Robins School, as a way to ensure social distancing.
By working on the T-shirt project together, Marshall says, students developed a sense of belonging within the Robins School. “When students are feeling levels of social isolation because of the pandemic, having the community created around them is that much more important. It’s crucial to how they interact with each other.”
The final, and arguably most important, lesson is that “business education can be a force for good through its impact on society,” says Nancy Bagranoff, professor of accounting at the Robins School. “Students in the Endeavor RSB program have taken that to heart.”
Thando Tsela, a student in the program, agrees. “The project shows how little changes to the way that we choose to do things can have a particular societal impact.”
Mickey Quiñones, dean of the Robins School, notes that 2020 has emphasized the many societal, environmental, medical, and economic challenges facing the world. “Businesses have an important role to play in addressing these challenges, he adds. “Our Endeavor RSB students used the T-shirt contest as a way to highlight this role.”
Nicole Hansen is the communications coordinator of the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond in Virginia.