December 23, 2011

While large cities like Dallas boast innumerable advantages, they also face complex problems that often endure for generations. Interdisciplinary student teams involved in SMU’s Big iDeas program investigate some of those massive challenges, dissect them into smaller issues and design viable projects based on their research.

The Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs launched Big iDeas in 2008 and awards grants of up to $5,000 to put students’ plans into action. Eight teams received Big iDeas grants in April, and student researchers reported their findings at a symposium November 4.

Big iDeas provided a conduit to the community for senior Amrita Vir. She and fellow finance major Sean Zech ’11 produced “Mustang Microfinance,” a proposal to provide loans to fledgling entrepreneurs in underserved neighborhoods. Their group, which includes seniors Trigg Burrage, Seth Dennis and Christina Sanders and junior Weston Richter, has grown to 20 participants.

“Education has always been a passion, but I’m not a teacher. I wanted something empowering and uplifting that I could do as a finance major,” says Vir, the 2011-12 Carl and Peggy Sewell President’s Scholar and a 2010-11 Richter Research Fellow. “The more I learned about microfinance, the more I believed it could work here in Dallas.”

While researching how to proceed, Vir and the team met Jeremy Gregg ’01, executive director of The PLAN Fund, a Dallas-based nonprofit microfinance institution. Gregg discovered an affinity for the nonprofit sphere while he was an SMU student serving as a White House intern in 1999.

“The opportunity exposed me to how the third sector can have a transformational impact on society, especially among populations that are underserved and often forgotten,” says Gregg, who obtained his first post-graduation job, with Camp Fire USA, through the Hegi Center.

As a mentor Gregg guided the students through the candidate interview process and arranged for The PLAN Fund to provide infrastructure, including a direct-deposit system for the loans.

Working with candidates referred by CitySquare, a faith-based nonprofit in Dallas, the Mustang Microfinance team has approved six loans, ranging from $200 to $1,000. Students set up a loan repayment schedule with the recipients and are offering monthly finance classes to borrowers, as well as others who would like to attend.

Kris Sweckard, managing director of Dallas’ Office of Environmental Quality, serves on the Big iDeas review committee. He sees the University’s emphasis on student engagement in the community as a long-term investment that enriches the entire city.

“It’s not just about the impact they have right now as students, it’s about their future as the city’s business  leaders and philanthropists,” says Sweckard. “The lessons they’re    learning now will have an impact on Dallas for the next 30, 40 and more years, perhaps forever.”