Letting the Initiatives Sprout

How can you change the lives of 30 people with less than $5,000? It’s certainly a complex and difficult question – but that’s where SLASummit comes in.

SLASummit is a social entrepreneurship conference designed to discuss various social, political and economic issues facing Latin American communities. The conference includes a case competition, where students are assigned to groups and tasked with developing a viable solution to foster sustainable development in one of three selected Latin American communities located in Mexico, Peru and Ecuador, respectively. Students face several panels of judges in multiple rounds and are even given concrete feedback from various professionals and organizations committed to sustainability, such as Engineers Without Borders.

The idea for SLASummit in its current form was born from an evolution from the inaugural conference three years ago. The summit was initially intended to be a TED-style conference acting as an insightful educational resource for attendees. At the same time, the Spanish and Latin American Students Association (SLASA) was in the process of implementing a social change project in Mexico that involved providing students with a sustainable bicycle program that would significantly diminish the average transportation time to and from school from nearly five hours to just under one hour.

This year’s summit will include participants of over 20 different nationalities, from universities all across North America, including Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Georgetown and even Latin American schools such as Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia.

“Everyone’s welcome, because we believe that if you are willing to pay the registration fees and give your time, especially as a university student who may be very busy, if you are willing to do it, then there’s no reason why we would turn you away,” explained Armando Ordorica, one of the conference chairs. Ordorica cites the extensive list of sponsors (which includes the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management, the Social Economy Initiative, and the International Management Association) for the summit as being a key factor in expanding registration and diminishing reliance on registration fees, ultimately allowing more students to attend the conference.

Divided over three days, the summit will include a full conference day with a series of speeches by everyone from Desautels Professor Anita Nowak to the Consulate General of Mexico. Students will then be given 24 hours to incubate their individual projects, after which they’ll go through a series of workshops intended to deconstruct and challenge their ideas.

On Saturday, the first round of presentations will take place, after which the best team from each community will be selected to proceed to the following round. Each group of community winners will then have the opportunity to polish their presentation for the last panel of judges. The final winning team will receive $5,000 and 120,000 Air Miles to travel to Latin America to implement their project.

But the collaboration doesn’t stop there. On Monday morning, students will have the opportunity to participate in an informal brainstorming session, where all summit participants will be able to contribute ideas for additions or improvements to the winning proposal, as well as offer suggestions for a tangible implementation.

The main objectives of the conference include raising awareness about current issues in Latin America, developing problem-solving skills among participants and attracting professionals to turn Latin America and Montreal into hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship. Depending on the success of this year’s conference, the team also hopes to potentially open an urban category that will be more technology-oriented for next year’s conference.

While participants are not necessarily obliged to follow through with implementation (it is the project that receives the money rather than the individuals themselves), the SLASummit team hopes that the program acts as a mentorship system for participants.

“Even if you don’t win the conference, and even if you don’t go and implement your idea, you become more aware of the world around you,” Ordorica explained. “You become more empathetic to it. And that, ultimately, is what’s going to allow us to grow.”

The SLASummit will be taking place this year from March 19th to 22nd. For more information, you can visit www.slasummit.com.