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Success Stories: aBan on Neglect

UNC alumnus Callie Brauel went to Ghana in 2008 with the typical luggage of a student traveling abroad. She came back with a suitcase filled only with small zippered plastic bags.

The bags were made by street children in Ghana from discarded water sachets that litter the streets of Accra, the country's capital city.

"We left all our stuff in Ghana and brought home as many bags as we could," said Brauel, who graduated from UNC in December with a degree in business administration and economics.

Making and selling the bags to provide income to the street children is the premise of Brauel's venture, aBAN on Neglect, developed in Launching the Venture. aBan won the $15,000 John Stedman Social Entrepreneurship Award at the 2010 Carolina Challenge, UNC's annual student-run entrepreneurial business plan competition for students, faculty and staff. aBan also won the $1,000 People Choice Award, selected by audience vote.

Volunteer work inspires search for solutions

When Brauel and Rebecca Brandt, a student at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., arrived in Ghana as foreign exchange students in 2008, they were stunned by the amount of plastic litter in the streets and the lack of any means of disposal.

"We wondered how a city of more than 2 million people could not have a single garbage can," Brauel said.

The litter is the result of inexpensive plastic bags of pure water critical to the health of the people of Ghana. The low cost of the bags make them accessible to everyone but have had the unintended consequence of creating an epidemic of waste.

Brauel and Brandt soon discovered a more disturbing problem haunting the streets of Accra: children — 21,000 of them — neglected and sleeping in the streets every night.

"Rebecca and I volunteered with some area nonprofits to help the children but every day at 5 p.m. the doors would shut and we'd all go home to our safe environments, which we found very frustrating. We wanted to do more," Brauel said.

Knowing they could never provide enough for the overwhelming number of children, Brauel and Brandt decided the best way to help would be to create a steady income stream to help the children improve their condition.

"We tried to think of something cheap they could make and sell," said Brauel.

It was after creating a mock nonprofit company for recycled products for a non-governmental organization management class that Brauel and Brandt hit upon the idea for aBAN.

A light finally went off and we thought why not help solve both street epidemics with one solution? We had a free, plentiful resource in the thousands of plastic water bags that surrounded us every day," said Brauel.

"A light finally went off and we thought why not help solve both street epidemics with one solution? We had a free, plentiful resource in the thousands of plastic water bags that surrounded us every day," said Brauel.

Several nonprofits operating in Accra provided sewing machines. Brauel and Brandt bought zippers. With the help of the children, they began collecting and sanitizing the bags, then added zippers to create bags they could sell.

"Our professor there really supported the effort and, right before we returned home, the whole thing really took off. The nonprofit volunteers said they'd keep things going. So we filled our suitcases with the bags to bring them home to sell," Brauel said.

Need for sustainable model leads team to Launch program and Challenge

After returning to the United States, Brauel and Brandt agreed to keep the effort going, Brandt in California and Brauel in North Carolina. "But we had to figure out how to make the business sustainable," Brauel said.

Brauel approached assistant professor Larry Chavis at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School to discuss an independent study to further her goal of making aBAN sustainable. Chavis directed her instead to Launching the Venture (LTV), CEI's signature venture-creation program. The year-long program takes participants through the process of testing the feasibility of their ideas for new commercial or social ventures and, for those with potential for success, developing business and finance plans.

"I was scared and overwhelmed when I started LTV," said Brauel, "but soon I discovered a whole support system through the class. The resources and people in the class are amazing."

The program's feasibility phase helped Brauel think "bigger," she said.

"LTV made me believe I could make this a business. It helped me see past the college campus as our only market and also led us to not just sell goods but to use aBAN to educate people," Brauel said. During this phase, Brauel added two teammates: sophomore Diana Lee and junior Claire Corriher.

"I was required to have a team, so I put out an appeal on several campus listervs and Diana and Claire responded." Corriher and Lee also enrolled in LTV.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Lee said. "I didn't have any business experience and we were the youngest people in the class. But everyone helped us and I've learned so much, not just about business but about life. It's been a great experience."

Even though Brauel graduated in December, she returned to UNC in January to continue with the business-planning phase of LTV. It was during this phase that she was encouraged to compete in the Carolina Challenge.

"We had several coaches and local business people donate their time to help us with our business plan and they all encouraged us to do the Carolina Challenge," said Brauel. "We could not have done it without them."

Winnings help effort move forward

Brauel says the Carolina Challenge prize money — $15,000 for first place and $1,000 for the People's Choice Award — will fund a trip to Ghana that she, Lee and Josh King will take this summer. King, a sophomore anthropology and psychology major, joined the team during the business-planning phase.

"The money has come at the perfect time," King said. "We accomplished so much in our planning and organization during LTV but hadn't yet raised funds for the trip."

Lee is looking forward to meeting the children face-to-face. "I've only heard stories about the children. I can't wait to meet them and see how our work here is helping them," Lee said.

"We hope to come up with ideas for more products to sell," Brauel said. She also hopes to buy more sewing machines and initiate a business curriculum to help the children set and reach goals.

"If we can teach them to save money, they might be able to break out of the cycle of poverty," Brauel said.

The team also plans to approach elementary and middle schools with the idea of selling aBAN products as school fund raisers, which could be a path to sustainability and an educational tool, Brauel said.

"We think that learning about and helping the street children of Accra and selling their items will be a much more meaningful experience to offer them than many of the typical school fundraisers."