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Senior Martin, professor Brock make social entrepreneurship easier to teach

by Chuck Gordon

Nik Martin used his attention to detail, eye for design and coding talent to make professor Debbi Brock a clean, useful website last summer. The project earned him and Brock an award from a national business association last month. 

You can learn a lot just by keeping an eye on your surroundings. Senior Nik Martin couples an observant nature with a problem solver’s desire to make life better.

“I think I was always watching people a lot,” says Martin, a native of Germany. “I’m very aware of the problems around me and how the system works. I always think about ways to fix it and how to make it better.”

Martin’s desire to change the system for the better has led him to social entrepreneurship – a field in which businesses keep one eye on the bottom line while being careful not to damage the environment or society. Martin, a dominant swimmer with a nearly perfect grade-point average, spent last summer helping make the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship easier to teach. He designed a website, called Social Change Innovators, to house all of the social-entrepreneurship teaching resources aggregated over the years by Dr. Debbi Brock, assistant professor of marketing and entrepreneurship.

Wingate professor Debbi Brock and senior Nik Martin receive an award.

For their efforts, last month Martin and Brock received the Excellence in Pedagogical Innovation Award at the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship annual conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. They beat out 15 others entrants to win the award.

For years, Brock had kept her social entrepreneurship resources in a DropBox account that hundreds of faculty members around the world had access to. Other professors would deposit lesson plans, PowerPoint presentations and other resources in DropBox and would download what they needed for their classes. The account was used heavily, but it was more storage locker than organized library.

“You could never see what was actually in the file. You could only see a preview,” Martin says. “There were many files, so it was really difficult to see what was what. Nobody knew the folder structure, so everybody just added their own folders.”

Martin came to Brock asking to engage in a summer research project. His professor had dreamed of creating an easy-to-use website, and Martin was the perfect candidate – not only was he smart, but he had created web pages before and had a good sense of how to make sleek, modern, intuitive pages. To cover their costs, they applied for, and were awarded, a Reeves Summer Research grant.

Brock wanted to transfer it to an easy-to-use website, and Martin was the perfect candidate – not only was he smart, but he had created web pages before and had a good sense of how to make sleek, modern, intuitive pages. To cover their costs, they applied for, and were awarded, a Reeves Summer Research grant.

The website project was perfect for Martin, who sees marketing as the ideal blend of art, technology and business. Martin taught himself to code when he was a young teenager in Germany and has worked as a graphic designer for the AdTeam for two years. He is also, as Brock says, “crazy organized.”

“His attention to detail is to the level of a business professional with 10 years of experience, to the point that he became the project manager and gave me deadlines to complete,” she says. “The role reversal was a breath of fresh air!”

Built from scratch

Just after the 2017-2018 academic year ended, Martin and Brock began taking stock of all the files in the DropBox folder and transferring over the ones that were the most useful and relevant. They decided to place them in 10 categories, plus a catch-all “other” basket. Each category would have its own page neatly subdivided into “presentations,” “articles,” “videos,” “assignments” and “links.” Martin had the idea of adding “like” and “dislike” buttons to the files, so they could be ranked and give visitors to the site a better idea of which resources work best. Martin then got busy designing and coding. He built the site from scratch.

Wingate University senior Nik Martin on campus

Martin spent four hours a day on the site while simultaneously working on another social entrepreneurship project, researching the growing “Benefit Corporation” movement in the United States. He worked on the site from May until after it launched in August.

The site has proven a valuable resource for professors looking to teach about social entrepreneurship, a field that is of special interest to Martin. “Social entrepreneurship is the combination of doing business good and well,” he says. “Doing financially well but at the same time not hurting society. I think what’s important about social entrepreneurship is that you balance those goals. You need to make profits in a capitalistic system, but at the same point you shouldn’t hurt the environment or hurt the people around you.”

That could mean making sure the wage gap between the CEO and the lowest-earning worker in a company is relatively small, ensuring that workers get enough time off and have a healthy work/life balance, or limiting your carbon footprint. Thanks to Martin and Brock, colleges and universities around the world now have an easy-to-browse resource to teach and research more about that field of study.

Martin, who will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and minors in mathematics and entrepreneurship, has a 3.98 GPA, having earned his only B his freshman year, in an English 110 course taught by Dr. Beverly Christopher. “She’s tough on grammar,” he says. Since he’d just arrived from Germany, perhaps that minor slip-up is understandable.

Refining his passion

It took Martin a while to come around to marketing as his preferred path in life. He started out as a management major but switched to finance after his freshman year. As his finance classes dealt more and more with shareholder value and less and less with consumers and society in general, it dawned on Martin that maybe he was cut out for something else. He’d already switched majors once. Why not do it again?

“One other swimmer is a marketing major, and a friend on the golf team, and they always joked around, ‘When are you going to switch to marketing?’” Martin says. “They knew deep down that I was a marketing major.”

He finally made the leap before the new school year started last August. It might seem like a small step to shift from one business-related major to another, but it’s crucial in understanding the way Martin thinks. “I got pretty annoyed that it (finance) was always about the owners of the business and how to increase the profits at the cost of everybody else,” Martin says.

Martin’s next move is to get a master’s degree in user-experience design, a relatively new field that focuses on usability and customer satisfaction. It’s how Steve Jobs made such a success of the iPhone – by thinking about how customers use their phone and making that process intuitive.

For Martin, who is applying to master’s programs in the Netherlands and the U.K., user-experience design will primarily mean web and app design. His passion grew during his days at Wingate, where he was able to work closely with Brock on two separate projects – something he doesn’t think he’d have been able to do at a larger school.

“I think I always had it in mind that I wanted to do web design partly, that it should be part of my job,” he says. “But then it got more and more clear that that’s actually what I really like to do and what I’m most interested in, so I decided to turn it into a career.

“At big universities in Germany, of course they are public, 200 people in lectures. It’s difficult to get a personal connection with the professors. A project like this with Dr. Brock would not have been possible at another university.”

Learn more about Wingate University’s marketing curriculum.

Feb. 15, 2019