In order to improve as a community, we have to come together, let our voices be heard and listen to what others have to say. We have to create opportunities to work toward solutions together.
Creating such opportunities are exactly what three College of Charleston students have been focused on this year – both as the entrepreneurs behind PollPit LLC and its “digital town hall” app, and as the model team for a pilot summer live/work/membership program with the Beaufort Digital Corridor (BDC) in Beaufort, South Carolina.
It all started with ImpactX, the College’s technology accelerator program hosted by the School of Business. Designed to teach students to make a profit and a difference, the program gave students Karisha Desai, Bryan Ko and Culley Deisinger the creative space to come up with an impact-driven technology and a forward-thinking business plan.
“When we were conceptualizing in the classroom for ImpactX, we started to look into why people were so angry when it comes to politics,” says Desai, a junior political science major. “What we found was that, although their frustrations were initially driven by politics, what they were really upset about was a sense of lacking the opportunity to voice their opinions. The public perceived this kind of divide separating themselves and their representatives.”
Together, the team came up with a solution: PollPit, an app that facilitates community discussion, allows individuals to recognize and prioritize issues and fosters sustainable solutions – all from the convenience of their phones. The public can post, comment and vote about their concerns, and the representatives can poll citizens on issues to gauge public opinion.
“It’s an efficient way to communicate with the public and bring people together in a digital town hall,” says Ko, a junior majoring in computer information systems. “It makes sure people’s voices are heard and, ultimately, serves as a conversation starter for the community as a whole.”
The team and its app certainly started some conversations in Beaufort, where city council and the BDC had been keeping an eye on the College’s ImpactX program for some time.
“The city was taking a hard look at economic development for a couple of years, and we knew we wanted to take a regional approach to our plan,” says Beaufort city councilman and BDC Board of Directors member Stephen Murray, adding that, as Charleston became an obvious choice and resource for potential partnerships, so too did the College and its ImpactX program.
And so, in the fall of 2017, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling led members of the BDC to the ImpactX Demo Day. It was at the next Demo Day, in April 2018, that the Pollpit team caught the attention of Matt D’Angelo, vice chair of the BDC Board.
“He came back and pitched the idea of bringing these students who had this civic-minded technology business idea to Beaufort to give them open access to the BDC and the city and our business community – and everyone was very supportive,” says Murray, adding that they quickly had the support of the Rotary Club, the mayor, some entrepreneurial-minded mentors and the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB). “It was all hands on deck.”
Everyone has skin in this game. Especially the Pollpit team.
“When startup teams graduate from ImpactX, they need continued mentoring, additional startup funding and a vibrant community of support for company and product growth,” says Chris Starr ’83, associate professor of supply chain and information management, who – together with David Wyman, assistant professor of management and marketing, and Stuart Williams, School of Business entrepreneur-in-residence – cofounded the ImpactX program (then called iCat) in 2015.
And so, for two solid months last summer, the students had open access not only to the BDC’s technology, but to experienced professionals in both business and politics who advised and guided them as they worked to launch Pollpit.
“ImpactX gave us the footing we needed and the tools we needed to be creative and start a business that really matters, but the opportunity in Beaufort was our chance to put our heads down and get work done without any distraction,” says Ko. “For the first time, it felt like our work had real consequences. If you mess up in class, it’s cute. But if you mess up in the real world, it can affect everything you’re doing and everyone you’re working with.”
The team members agree that everyone they worked with in Beaufort had a real effect on them and their work – from the start-up advisers who mentored them to the residents who provided them with room and board, including Murray, his wife and their 5-year-old twins.
“It was just a refreshing treat to have such energetic, intelligent young people in the house,” says Murray, adding that the students taught his twins to play chess. “It was a great experience for us – and, I hope, a great experience for them.”
The students confirm: The whole experience in Beaufort was great in multiple ways.
“I remember the first day when Bryan and I got to the office, and we were like, ‘Cool, we finally made it to Beaufort. Now what?’” says Deisinger, a senior business administration major. “We knew what our end goal was, but it was hard to figure out the steps needed to get there. There were so many things we had to do, so it was hard to prioritize. I would say the most important thing I gained from Beaufort was how to deal with that kind of ambiguity.”
Another takeaway: the true meaning of teamwork.
“When you live and work with someone day in and day out, you learn who’s the leader and who listens, and it really helps with teamwork,” adds Desai. “We became really close and came to understand that you have to have people you trust and get along with on your team.”
And supporting the students was the start of an exciting opportunity for the community of Beaufort, too.
“Our dream is that next summer, we could bring multiple teams of students to Beaufort and that eventually Beaufort could become a summer retreat for students to spend the summer in an incubator program that takes them from concept to investors,” says Murray. “The idea is that it is reciprocated and they come back and push money through our economy.”
In the meantime, the students are back in Charleston, and they’re using their summer experience to further the PollPit mission.
“In Beaufort, we validated our product,” says Ko. “Now we want to test it in niche industries and see what works best. Once we see how it performs in different areas and where it can be most beneficial, we will be able to adjust.”
With the help of this year’s ImpactX class, they’re testing PollPit not just in local government settings, but in HOAs, local businesses and the CofC community among others.
Further, the team invites the greater Charleston community to test the app by downloading PollPit from the App Store, creating a profile and selecting a community (e.g., Charleston, College of Charleston).
From there, users can let their voices be heard, listen to others and ultimately make their community better.