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Students and 3M Work to Make #HoustonStrong

Tuesday, December 3, 2019 10:35 am CST

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To University of Houston student Diego Cabrera, #HoustonStrong is more than just a slogan. 

“To me, it means ‘Let’s do this.’ Let’s get up and really do something for Houston,” he said.

The hashtag was born in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the Houston metro area that resulted in devastating floods and historic damage. #HoustonStrong provided city residents with a rallying cry of resilience in the storm’s aftermath. It also gained national recognition and momentum during the Houston Astros World Series win just two months after the hurricane made landfall. 

“Our community went through so much together,” said Ruqayyah Shaik, a college classmate of Diego. “But #HoustonStrong has really carried on since Harvey.”

Diego and Ruqayyah are seniors at the University of Houston and currently enrolled in the 3M Sales for Social Impact program. A partnership between 3M and select universities, the program enables students to partner with a nonprofit and then create a proposed business plan to help advance that organization’s mission. The student groups were eligible to earn grant dollars for their partner organizations based on how well they presented their business plan during a recent visit to 3M’s headquarters.  

The group of 10 Houston students decided to focus their efforts on a decades-long issue that has destroyed many lives in their home city – sex trafficking. 

“For such a long time it was a taboo topic to talk about and so nothing ever got done,” Ruqayyah said. “Before this program, I never talked about it because nobody ever brought it up with me.”

To change this, the Houston undergrads chose Elijah Rising as their partner organization. The Houston nonprofit is on the frontlines of ending sexual exploitation, helping victims transition out of sex trade and rebuild their lives. In 2017, they opened a retail store to provide employment for women as part of a long-term care program. The store sells candles, soaps and other home goods for which the women are given 100% of the proceeds.  

“We would frequently encounter women wanting to leave the sex industry, but without employment, a safe place to live, childcare, etc. choosing to leave “the life” was nearly impossible,” said Sam Hernandez, the mobilization director at Elijah Rising. 

As part of the semester-long class, the students met regularly with staff members to understand their mission, business model, challenges and opportunities. A few weeks before the students’ trip to 3M, the group presented their business plan to the Elijah Rising staff.  

“When they presented their plan, I almost started crying,” said Sam. “We’re a team of just 10 people and we can only do so much in a day. They brought us more than just ideas, they brought us solutions.”

A major focus area for the students’ plan centered around the retail store. In the plan, the group detailed strategies for a customer loyalty program, social media advertising and website optimization. They also partnered with well-known Houston artist Daniel Anguilu to paint a mural on the side of Elijah Rising’s building at a largely reduced cost to help drive more awareness.

The plan was so well received by 3M employees that they awarded Houston first place and provided the team with an $8,000 grant for Elijah Rising. Minutes after the awards ceremony, the students huddled in a back room to FaceTime with Sam and her co-workers who were in the Houston offices. 

3M Sales Training Manager Scott Holway has been working with 3M Sales for Social Impact for seven years, including three years as a liaison to the Houston program. 

“These students have influenced how we structure our recruiting, hiring and onboarding programs,” said Scott. “They want to work for a company that cares about communities. Working with these students helps us at 3M keep a pulse on what the next generation is looking for in an employer.” 

Professor Craig McAndrews has been leading the 3M Sales for Social Impact program at Houston for two years and touts the importance of the hands-on experience for students. 

“When you’re in college, your view of life can be very narrow,” said Craig. “But when you get a chance to work with an organization that serves people in the community, your eyes are opened up dramatically. This class gives them a picture of sales that isn’t about revenue. The idea of reaching down and lifting up is a big theme I see in working with students today.” 

Ruqayyah joined the Sales for Social Impact class to become more formidable as she thinks about her career in tackling societal issues.   

“This class allowed me to pair my passion for nonprofits and activism with business ideas and structure.” 

Her classmate Diego shares a similar and fitting motivation.

“It all comes back to Houston,” he said. “#HoustonStrong is here to stay.”

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