Nurturing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship

Author: Cristin O'Connor

By Allison Nanni, writer for Public Affairs at the University of Notre Dame

“People give up too easily,” James Summers says. A marketing executive and business consultant, Summers has worked for the past 30 years to revitalize communities across the Midwest. “Oftentimes, we [volunteers] want to ride in on our white horse and fix the problem overnight.  We don’t take into consideration that people in the community have strengths to heal themselves,” he adds. “Our job is to fill in the gaps until, over time, we develop those gaps into strengths. We can’t take a ‘one and done’ approach.”

Now as a volunteer and board member of 100 Black Men, a local South Bend organization, Summers is working with the University of Notre Dame and other corporate and community partners to offer a three-year pilot Innovative Thinkers Camp (INC) to 20 local middle school students.  The two-week summer experience was created to encourage area youth to pursue individual achievement in academics and areas of future career interests.

 “As a university, part of our responsibility is to nurture the pipeline that feeds economic development in the Michiana region,” said Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services at Notre Dame, of the conversations that spurred the planning of the ITC pilot. “We started asking ourselves, ‘Who is cultivating the culture of problem solving, innovation and entrepreneurship in our community?’  We have to play a part in that.”

Open to area seventh- through ninth-graders, the camp is sponsored by numerous Notre Dame departments, as well as Intel, Lenovo, the Lincoln Division of Ford Motor Company, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., La Casa de Amistad Inc., 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend and the Memorial Health System Pfeil Innovation Center.

Gustavo Vargas, a seventh grader at Dickinson Fine Arts Academy, participated in youth programs at La Casa de Amistad before learning about the INC.  Vargas says being chosen as one of the 20 summer participants is an honor.  He is excited about the prospect of earning a laptop by consistently attending camp for three summers. 

As a member of the Dickinson Academy band, Vargas says it has taken him time to learn to hit the higher notes on his trumpet, but he loves music.  His dream is to open a store where customers could learn about and purchase a variety of instruments. 

Jackie Rucker, associate director of community relations at Notre Dame, explains the engagement of the entire family is critical to successfully building enthusiasm, entrepreneurship and innovation into the DNA of a community. “There has to be a long-term, sustained commitment to valuing all community members and their experiences in order to effect positive change,” she explains.

Another seventh grade participant, Leslie Alvarez Garcia, says her parents encouraged her to participate in the camp.  “My mom said that I should take every good opportunity that comes into my path.  You never know if it’s going to come back.” Although Alvarez Garcia wants to study marine zoology, she is not sure how to go about it, “Here at INC camp, I’m learning what it is I need to do.”

Check out the Innovative Thinkers Camp blog.

Photo Caption: Innovative Thinkers Camper, Leslie Alvarez Garcia of Saint Adalbert's School, concentrates during a team creative writing exercise.