“Serendipitous.” That’s what Zachary Rodriguez, Ph.D., calls the opportunity to join the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society (IES) at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management as a postdoctoral researcher. And, while that’s probably the last word most would use to describe the events of the past year, it seems fitting, as Rodriguez’s current research focuses on how entrepreneurs can use crisis to bring forward innovation, opportunities for economic growth and localized solutions to public health problems.
Rodriguez’s entrepreneurial interests have grown out of a combination of his desire to help people and a fascination with the data and innovation that enables others to do so successfully. As a 19-year-old undergraduate, this passion to do good led him to travel to Uganda with a few other students and only $3,000 in the hopes of making a difference. “People kept saying, ‘No, wait until you graduate,’” he says, “but I was impatient.”
He admits he quickly realized he had a lot to learn about establishing and sustaining a nonprofit organization, but his efforts paid off, as today he remains the co-founder and COO of Embrace It Africa in southern Uganda, an international development organization that affects issues of poverty, health insecurity and access to education through microfinance, outpatient healthcare and student sponsorship.
Rodriguez looks at the opportunity to do his postdoctoral work at IES as a way “to keep one foot in the academic world to further my research, while keeping another in the practical world (like his nonprofit) where he sees what some of the real needs are.”
“Nonprofits really make a difference in communities, but it’s difficult for their directors to split their energy between managing programs, raising funds and evaluating impact,” he explains. “I’m hoping that the kind of data-driven research I’m doing can help others set up programming at its initial phase so as to easily understand the program’s progress and overall impact.”
Most recently, the pandemic has fueled Rodriguez’s existing research revolving around public health and given him plenty to work with. To that end, Rodriguez is currently writing a paper with the Whitman School’s Maria Minniti, Ph.D., director of IES and Bantle chair in entrepreneurship and public policy, based on research looking at response organizing and community resilience to the pandemic. He is hoping to further assertions that localized solutions to these big problems are more successful in responding successfully to a crisis like the current pandemic.
“In my research, I’m trying to delve further into how problems, like the timing of local health orders, for example, can often be more effective when handled at the local, rather than the state, level,” he explains.
His work at the Whitman School is not limited to issues of health, however. He has shared other areas of his entrepreneurial research and experience with the University community, too. Rodriguez participated in a IES webinar for Whitman students this fall with several EEE colleagues. The webinar, Entrepreneurship in Times of Crisis, addressed how entrepreneurs can often flourish in tough times despite the hardships. Rodriguez referenced the response of entrepreneurs during the Great Recession (2008-2009), which, using data, showed how many identified holes in the marketplace that led to brand new concepts in business like Groupon and Airbnb – which are now billion dollar companies.
While fall 2020 focused primarily on research, Rodriguez is sharing his entrepreneurial know-how teaching classes at the Whitman School this spring, as well. He wants to convey his own experience and research in the hopes that the budding entrepreneurs in his classroom will find their own serendipitous moments as they look for ways to positively impact the world.
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