Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama was the muse behind Obama Girl, who continues to sing about her crush on youtube.com. He is red, white and blue in artist Shepard Fairey’s poster that now overlooks York Street through a window of the Yale Art and Architecture building. A few blocks away, his face appears on graphic T-shirts announcing “Progress” and “Obama For Yo’ Mama,” at the markedly left-leaning Urban Outfitters.
From community service to artistic design, excitement for this year’s elections has triggered a spirit of entrepreneurship in many college students, too. Elis and their peers at other schools have tapped into this innovative spirit, using Obama as an inspiration for community service — and as a marketing technique to help them win money from fellow students, regardless of the entrepreneurs’ ideological leanings.
Starting up the Obama business
Ben Silbermann ’03 said he was never politically active as an undergraduate. But a couple of months ago, Silbermann caught Obama fever, working with his friends Sean Farrell ’03 and Chris Hinkle to create a Facebook application called Faces of Change.
The online art installation is a virtual mural of Obama’s face, composed of tiny, mosaic headshots of group members. Users’ comments or reasons for supporting Obama are revealed when a cursor moves to an individual box. Although Silbermann said he created the application “out of fun,” he said it can provide voters with a space to share their support for Obama.
Silbermann is not the only one to take advantage of Obama’s candidacy to explore new ways to reach the electorate.
A team of six undergraduates and recent graduates at Stanford University started Travel For Change, where supporters can sponsor volunteers who wish to travel to swing states with frequent-flyer miles.
Stanfordian Mesa Schumacher, a senior, said her college roommate Alisa Whitfield conceived the idea after working on Obama’s campaign.
“We fill that special niche where we can make a significant impact,” Schumacher said.
David Manners-Weber ’10 and Justin Kosslyn ’09 also began working for the Obama campaign as volunteers in New Hampshire. Manners-Weber said his job as a canvasser led him to think about how he could alternatively engage citizens who might be unreceptive to door-to-door campaigners, which gave birth to the idea for a national organization called Obama Works. The grassroots group attempts to garner support for Obama by encouraging public service that embodies the candidate’s message of change.
“Obama encouraged citizens to think of creative ways to work for change in this country,” Manners-Weber said.
He said the opportunity was a perfect way to combine his interests in politics and community service.
In a guest column for the Yale Daily News last January, Manners-Weber and Kosslyn proposed a rethinking of on-the-ground volunteer campaign strategy to include “visible public service projects.”
The proposal set off a firestorm of support, Manners-Weber said. He and Kosslyn worked with other interested supporters to implement the Illinois senator’s message of change through food drives, Habitat for Humanity initiatives and neighborhood cleanups.
“I could never have run Obama Works if I was the one motivating folks all the time and manufacturing support,” Manners-Weber said. “Obama Works is about the power of an idea.”
And Kosslyn and Manners-Weber are not the only students who have been inspired by Obama’s campaign.
Will Ruben, a junior at Harvard, said he conceived of VoteGopher.com, a comprehensive, non-partisan Election 2008 study guide, in his dorm room.
Exactly one year ago this coming weekend, VoteGopher.com founder and CEO Ruben launched the Web site after becoming frustrated by the lack of a centralized body of information on the presidential primaries.
“I thought this was a void that would be an interesting challenge to fill,” he said.
The site has been lauded as “unusually extensive” by The New York Times and described as “more comprehensive and lively than anything I’ve seen out there” by The Washington Post.
And the students said their initiatives will not end with the Nov. 4 election.
Reuben said his team of fellow Cantabs will launch NewsGopher early next week, which will offer more general political videos and news.
Likewise, Manners-Weber said Obama Works will evolve into a “pledge feature,” where people can donate hours rather than dollars to better the community even after elections — under the Obama administration, he hopes.
And with his own valuable exposure to both political and social work, Manners-Weber said he now hopes to take on local challenges in New Haven, such as cleanup in the Newhallville neighborhood planned for Oct. 18.
Calling for change, and capitalizing on it, too
Some young voters refuse to sit out of this year’s election — especially when jumping on the Obama bandwagon can turn a profit.
Business partners Rich Littlehale ’10 and Bob Casey ’10 launched their Cell Phones for Obama initiative last Wednesday. They plan to collect used cell phones and donate 70 percent of their proceeds to the Democratic campaign.
In an effort to promote their larger startup business TwigTek under the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, CEO Littlehale and CFO Casey are tapping into a mainstream audience by linking their business to Obama.
“It’s a great marketing ploy,” Casey said.
Casey said Cell Phones for Obama is the one impulsive and “cool” ploy among the several launched under Twigtek, a green company providing management solutions to create revenue for organizations looking to save money. Their more long-term and consistent projects drive collection across the United States by encouraging people to donate their handheld electronics to charities such as United Way.
“We saw this as a great way to do something out of the ordinary for donation,” he said.
The idea to collect electronic devices for recycling came long before the idea for Cell Phones for Obama. Over the summer, Casey said he visited a Green Festival in his hometown of Chicago, where he noticed many corporations recycling an array of objects ranging from textbooks to shoes — but not electronic devices.
Casey said he and Littlehale struggled with finding a way to persuade people to recycle electronics.
“It’s a problem of incentives,” he said. “People aren’t lazy, but they won’t seek out incentives unless it’s given to them.”
A fellow student suggested that the entrepreneurs start a Web site that could provide the necessary encouragement — cell phones for T-shirts or another gift. Casey and Littlehale went one step further to launch Cell Phones for Obama.
“We’re Obama fans,” Littlehale said. “But we’re not intense.” In fact, he admitted, he was a Republican until this year. Casey said his father has voted Republican since President Ronald Reagan.
Casey said the Cell Phones for Change Web site was launched just three days after the initial idea was proposed.
“Obama was a really easy way to get started on the Web,” he said.
While Casey admitted the initiative was not the best business decision, given the pressure it placed on time and other resources, he said like other start-up founders, he and Littlehale hope to learn from the mistakes they make.
And the response so far — estimated at roughly over $100 worth of cell phone donations — demonstrates that the model works, Littlehale said, particularly since the phones they have received since this Monday’s mailing are high-quality phones that can be recycled and sold in a secondary market.
Regardless of the political implications, STEP member Steven Winter ’11 said the entrepreneurs are doing good for the environment.
“This initiative is better than just dumping phones in our universal bins,” he said.
And of course, Casey said, he and Littlehale hope Obama will win the election.