Release Date: August 13, 2018
BUFFALO, N.Y. — As University at Buffalo graduate students Alyssa Bergsten and Aric Gaughan settled into their summer internship, they quickly discovered the prevailing attitude toward safety in the construction industry: “Suck it up, and get back to work,” Gaughan says.
It was their mission to change that mindset.
Working with Oneida Sales and Service, Bergsten and Gaughan used their varied backgrounds in social work and business, respectively, to devise a person-centered program to demonstrate the company’s commitment to safety, train managers and improve overall safety for workers.
Their project was part of UB’s Social Impact Fellows program, which pairs UB MBA and Master of Social Work students together with a mission-driven organization to develop solutions to social issues facing our region. Part of a strategic focus on social innovation, the program is presented by the School of Management, School of Social Work and Blackstone LaunchPad at UB.
“Combining disciplines is a cool, effective way to innovate and come up with new ideas you never would have thought of otherwise,” says Gaughan, an MBA student.
Bergsten, a JD/MSW student, agreed: “For me, it was interesting to see how much our two disciplines have in common and how we can work together. Social work and business don’t always have conflicting values.”
Changing an industry
To develop their idea, Bergsten and Gaughan interviewed more than 60 workers in various construction roles. They identified a technique, rooted in social work theory, they could use to help managers shift from “safety cops” who merely discipline workers for infractions to “safety coaches” who work with their crews to create a positive, safe environment.
“It’s been amazing to work with these students,” says Maggie Saia, safety director at Oneida. “They brought in a new perspective, and without them, we wouldn’t have this program — this is their idea and their approach.”
Meanwhile, in addition to Oneida, pairs of Social Impact Fellows interned at nine other organizations around the region: Catholic Charities of Buffalo, Explore Buffalo, the Foundry, Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo Inc., Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York, Niagara Lutheran Health System, Olmsted Center for Sight, University Heights Tool Library and Westminster Economic Development Initiative.
The fellows spent four days a week at their organization site, and one day on campus learning from management and social work faculty about entrepreneurship and how to generate solutions for social challenges.
New for 2018, the second year of the program, was the addition of a student researcher from the UB College of Arts and Sciences to three teams to provide additional context and help ensure their solution is sustainable. For example, Qiuyi Zhang, a doctoral student in geography, helped the Tool Library team map where the nonprofit’s customers live, along with bus routes and traffic patterns, to identify potential locations for expansion. Michael Harper, a history graduate student, worked with the Explore Buffalo team on a local history program for Buffalo Public School kids, while Daniel Bagnall, a sociology graduate student, supported the Niagara Lutheran Health System team in their proposal to create the area’s first comfort care home.
“There’s always going to be a benefit from business and social work coming together, but it doesn’t have to stop there,” says Ezra Staley, JD/MBA ’09, executive director of social innovation at UB. “With the expansion of the 2018 Social Impact Fellows program, we saw that the real potential lies in bringing disciplines together from more areas to make this a truly impactful experience.”
Implementing the solutions
The program culminated July 27 with the Pitch for a Cause competition, when each team took the stage for five minutes to present their solution and compete for funding for their partner organization to implement it. Judging the competition were Michael Riegel, president of Belmont Housing Resources for WNY; Michael Weiner, MBA ’90, president and CEO of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County; and Sujata Yalamanchili, BS ’88, MBA ’89, partner at Hodgson Russ.
First place went to Bergsten, Gaughan and Oneida Sales and Service. Saia says the $2,000 prize will allow Oneida to launch the fellows’ safety program this fall.
“The $2,000 will go toward manager training in the motivational interviewing technique the students identified,” Saia says. “Our long-term goal is to implement safety consulting with other local companies, and create another career path for social workers within the business world to use their skills.”
Melissa Cirina and Sonya Tareke, an MSW and MBA student respectively, and Zhang took second place and a $1,000 prize for the Tool Library.
“The program opened my eyes to social enterprises as somewhere I want to go in my career,” Tareke says. “I don’t want my career to just pay the bills to free up time for things I enjoy — I want to blend the two. It’s inspiring.”
The Social Impact Fellows program has received philanthropic support from the Charles D. and Mary A. Bauer Family Foundation, the School of Management Alumni Association, the UB President’s Circle and several generous alumni and friends of the university.