When he first went to the NC School of Science and Mathematics in 11th grade, Ryan O’Donnell didn’t become a techie – he became a humanist. But for O’Donnell, that wasn’t an either/or choice.
Now a senior at NC State University, O’Donnell thrives on reaching across disciplines to use technology to solve human problems. In May, he’s on track to receive his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a focus in entrepreneurship. After learning about Economics, International Studies, and Chinese, Ryan took one of his best classes, on World Population and Food Prospects, in State’s Crop Science Department.
“You need the flexibility as a student to learn what you need to learn,” he says. “I need to get an education so I can solve a problem.” That flexibility helped him become a well-rounded student and serial social entrepreneur.
Starting with a high-school project that broke the Guinness World Record for the most food donated in a 24-hour period, O’Donnell and his classmates have launched a series of undertakings designed to address human challenges:
- The 2011 project at the School of Science and Math in Durham raised 559,885 pounds of donated food in 18 hours for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. “We had a bunch of high school students who said, ‘We can do that,’” O’Donnell says. “They actually had to get an extra warehouse for us.” Yet he points out that the Food Bank was able to distribute all the food raised in just 6 hours.
- With Pennies 4 Progress, O’Donnell and three other NC State students – Kevin Miller, Brandon Narybouth and Shreye Saxena – created a nonprofit that allows shoppers at over 6,000 merchants to “round up” their purchase by as little as a penny and direct it to a local school (60,000 of them nationwide) or nonprofit. “The consumer doesn’t have to do anything but tap the screen,” he says.
“We want to make sure people can fund the causes they care about when they shop at local stores… When you look at systems that have trillions in transactions, one penny per transaction is a lot of money,” O’Donnell says. He adds that if every person in the state donated a single penny, it would amount to nearly $100,000.
The project won a $50,000 grant from the Institute for Emerging Issues and the State Employees Credit Union to help provide funds for North Carolina schools in the face of state budget cuts. And it took first place in the UNC system’s first social business competition. Pennies 4 Progress went live with its partner GoodLabs in October, and it aims to raise more than $200,000 by the end of 2014.
With EMPLOYUS, which launched in July, CEO O’Donnell teamed with Chairman Jeff Stocks, who built North America’s largest Manpower staffing firm, to democratize employment referrals. Anyone – not just a corporate search firm – can earn a reward of $500 to $5,000 through the service by successfully referring a job candidate to an employer that posts an opening on the site. Citrix and Red Hat are backing EMPLOYUS through the Citrix-Red Hat Startup Accelerator Innovators Program. The EMPLOYUS website lists more than $50,000 in referral prizes for over 20 positions in the Triangle.
“Companies need to hire great people quickly and affordably,” O’Donnell says. “But nearly every solution on the market makes companies compromise. Great technology can change that.”
Ryan O’Donnell has excelled because he was able to delve into science, math and the humanities. Public higher education in North Carolina has delivered opportunities to do that for years. All students – both now and in the future – deserve such opportunities.
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