Students in Loomis Chaffee’s Design Thinking for the Common Good course worked with a UConn women’s basketball player this spring to help her expand the reach of her nonprofit organization, Women and Kids Empowerment (WAKE).
The seven students, all seniors, presented their final recommendations on May 18 during a Zoom online conference call with the organization’s founder, Batouly Camara. Ms. Camara, a forward on the Huskies basketball team, started WAKE to help girls and young women in her home country of Guinea in West Africa gain access to education and connect to broader opportunities through basketball clinics and workshops.
“In places where limited resources often mean limited dreams, I see sport as freedom to empower young girls to attend school, gain physical literacy, and build community,” Ms. Camara said as she proposed her challenge to the class at the start of spring term.
The challenge for the Loomis students was to find innovative ways that WAKE could continue to expand its visibility and build an online audience as it prepares to launch a youth basketball program and other initiatives while stay-at-home restrictions are in place due the COVID-19 crisis.
According to Ms. Camara, WAKE had planned to raise funds this spring and summer for the launch of a basketball academy in Guinea through a celebrity basketball game, a gala event, and a charity tournament, but the pandemic halted all public gatherings. In response to the crisis restrictions, WAKE organizers postponed the public events and moved to raise awareness and support for its programs from a safe distance. Ms. Camara sought the Loomis students’ help in generating ideas to continue the organization’s momentum and expand its visibility with its target audience, especially young women and girls.
The seniors in Design Thinking for the Common Good originally had enrolled in the Innovation Trimester, a signature program of the school’s Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI) that immerses students in design-thinking projects for the spring term. With the closure of Loomis Chaffee’s campus due to COVID-19, this spring’s Innovation Trimester was modified for a distance-learning environment. The students, working in two teams, took on Ms. Camara’s challenge with direction from PHI faculty Jen Solomon and Tim Helfrich.
Both teams identified social media as a useful tool in helping WAKE expand its visibility and promote its programs because it is used widely and shared by young people and people interested in sports and social justice content, which represent large swaths of WAKE’s target demographics. The students also favored social media because it allows for personal communication across distances, is inexpensive, and is easy to use.
In the May 18 presentation, the team of Sam DeNey, Nikita Stepanov, and Caroline Thompson presented their ideas for helping WAKE to become “the face of women’s sports” and for their social media accounts to become “a hub for women’s athletics, empowerment and growth.” They shared data from their research that showed ways other sports-centered organizations are growing their social media audiences during the pandemic through the use of targeted content. They pointed to the growth of followers on the Instagram account for Goaliesmith Lacrosse, which has developed engagement content focused on training and promoting the sport online during the COVID crisis. The team of students suggested WAKE could model this approach and create social media content, with the hashtag #WAKEUP, that might include online skills videos, healthy lifestyle advice, WAKE-branded sporting merchandise sales, and podcasts focused on young women in basketball.
The second team’s proposal, presented by Tess Carty, Theo Hallal, Makayla MacPherson, and Alex Zunino, built on detailed data that the team had gathered from several respected market research sources. The data supported the use of social media to reach WAKE’s target young female audience.
“We propose that WAKE be a source of light in the shadow of the pandemic,” Makayla said during the team’s presentation. The proposed approach would focus on offering girls and young women hope and encouragement, especially during the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, through social media engagement and the creation of an online community. The team suggested creating online engagement activities such as a dribbling skills video challenge, tracking and responding to followers' engagement, and continuing to develop content based on what viewers like to see. Additionally, the students advised encouraging followers’ online interactions and sharing by responding to their inquiries, and through the use of hashtags, quizzes, and tagging.
“When can I hire both teams?” Ms. Camara asked with approving humor after the teams finished their presentations. Their ideas surpassed her expectations, she said, and she appreciated the teams’ enthusiastic and thoughtful approaches to the challenge.
“The presentations truly provided some insightful, innovative, and significant marketing strategies to take Women and Kids Empowerment to the next level,” Ms. Camara affirmed.
Jen and Tim were impressed with the students’ willingness to take on the design thinking exercise and to work conscientiously on the project despite having to collaborate with each other across distances and time zones in their senior spring.
Tim characterized the COVID-19 crisis as a “design thinking challenge for the whole world right now.” He said the skills that the students learned this spring will help them become effective problem-solvers in the wake of the pandemic and during other future disruptions.