Impact Connections: Spotlight on the Texas Social Innovation Challenge Winners, Big & Mini

by Sandi S. Ruddick

Allen Zhou presents in Big & Mini’s final TSIC pitch

The Social Innovation Initiative, in partnership with Bumble, held its second annual Texas Social Innovation Challenge (TSIC) final pitch competition on April 25. TSIC is a program and pitch competition designed to prepare the next generation of innovators to create sustainable, world-changing start-ups (https://www.mccombs.utexas.edu/Centers/Social-Innovation-Initiative/TSIC) . The first-place team, Big & Mini, took home a cash prize of $5,000 and will represent UT-Austin at the prestigious Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge in June.

Big & Mini, developed a year ago by members Aditi Merchant, Allen Zhou, and Anthony Zhou, is a web and mobile platform that connects older adults and college students to combat social isolation and bridge the generation gap. Due to the isolation brought on even before the pandemic, 63% of Americans reported feeling lonely. Both older adults and college students felt a need for connection and cross-generational interaction. Throughout the pandemic, this growing isolation and loneliness led to an increasing strain on the health of individuals and on our healthcare system as a whole. By creating meaningful, one-on-one interactions between older adults (Bigs) and college students (Minis), Big & Mini is able to create authentic, long-term connections and help combat loneliness and depression. The program also has built-in metrics for engagement and provides Mental Health Screenings for users. The founders of the company hope to “end loneliness, one Big & Mini match at a time.”

Sandi: How did you all meet, and what inspired you to start Big & Mini?

B & M: Anthony — Allen and I are brothers; he’s older by two years. Allen — I guess I connected the two of them. I knew Anthony already; Aditi I met on the first day of school in math class our freshman year, and we’ve stayed really good friends since. Because we like building things to help other people, it was just really natural for the three of us to work together. Anthony — It started in early April of 2020. We were all on a college campus experiencing that social life and getting to hang out with friends When COVID suddenly hit, we were all locked down, and suddenly we went from 100 to 0. Loneliness was something we were all feeling, but we knew that a lot more people were feeling it, too. At the same time, the group that was most at risk for COVID, older adults, became isolated because in-person visits were not feasible. We really wanted to provide a way to not only address that problem of social isolation and loneliness, but also to bridge the generations, because it is something we found so valuable — not only with our grandparents, but also with the mentors in our lives.

Aditi Merchant pitches in the final round of competition

Sandi: What special knowledge or skills do you each bring to the team?

B & M: Allen — (Electrical and Computer Engineering major) I focus on front-end design; Aditi (Biomedical Engineering major with a minor in Business) on Business Communications; Anthony (a high school senior) is our technical coding genius. There are different parts of the start-up development process that we all specialize in. With our complimentary skill sets, there really wasn’t a redundancy. We also share the same values, so it is just a really good fit.

Sandi: Why did you join the Texas Social Innovation Challenge?

B & M: In our development as a company, we’ve come across a lot of different people in different industries and fields. Oftentimes, we don’t see as many people who are focused on having the positive impact on people’s lives as we are; TSIC really stood out to give us the chance to connect with similar people who wanted to have a meaningful impact on society at large. The sort of social impact TSIC has here really stood out to us because we can meet other people like us. The idea of working in a community that’s focused on impact really appealed to us.

Sandi: What activities did you participate in as part of the Texas Social Innovation Challenge?

B & M: Aditi — One of the ones I most remember and liked was the Bumble Speed Pitch. We would give our quick spiel to the mentors and get their professional feedback. It was a great opportunity to refine our pitches and make sure they were good to go and that we could convey them in a manner that was really clear. It was really cool and helpful to hear their feedback on what we were doing. We got some really interesting ideas because some of the mentors were working in similar spaces that could be applicable to what we might grow into in the future. It was great to meet everyone!

Sandi: How did TSIC support your entrepreneurial journey? What did you learn from the program?

B & M: I think TSIC has been really supportive throughout. The cool thing is that it’s not just a one-off pitch competition — it’s an almost year-long guidance in which you get to grow your venture. It began last fall, meeting with Dr. Kothare, who gave us great advice on getting started; telling us who we should meet in the impact space — particularly in Austin; and the constant guidance in the next few months. We also got to meet people like us and mentors who were in our industry. And, ultimately, the pitch competition — which was really fun!

The team won $5,000 in seed funding for their venture

Sandi: What advice would you give to aspiring student impact entrepreneurs?

B & M: The advice we would give is to take the leap and just start making an impact. Also, making sure you’re creating something that will benefit as many people as possible. It needs to be timely, it needs to be something that’s as accessible as possible, and it needs to be ready to roll out as quickly as possible, because that’s the easiest way to start making a difference. There are a lot of problems that social impact can solve in our world. If you just take the leap and have an idea that can solve one of these problems, everything else will come. People will really resonate with your mission and want to support you. Another important aspect is to be genuine when you convey your story and how we can make the world better. That is a really powerful force to help people rally together and move forward.

Sandi: What is the best thing for you personally about this journey to create Big & Mini?

B & M: Hands down, it’s been meeting the people; from every stage of our venture, we’ve just met the most amazing people. From getting to meet and chat, like this interview; to meeting the other competitors — who are compatriots, because we are in this together; all the way down to the bigger companies on our platform, who really make the community what it is. Those are the people who really want to make a positive impact on society and who are out there doing it — volunteering their time and sharing their stories. It’s amazing to see how hard they work and what good people they are. Having such amazing co-founders to work with, meeting these amazing peers and mentors, and getting inspired by the stories of all the Big and Minis — they are the ones who make everything possible!

Sandi: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

B & M: We would just like for everyone to know how to sign up to be a Big or Mini, if they would like. Just go to bigandmini.org and click the sign-up button. It takes only five minutes, and you get a really rewarding connection out of it!

This interview has been edited in context and length for clarity and brevity.

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Global Sustainability Leadership Institute

Welcome to Impact Connections, the GSLI’s blog space! We were formerly known as the Social Innovation Initiative.