i.Lab Company Turns Shipping Containers Into Refugee Solution
By Dave Hendrick
Among the most broad-minded and ambitious of the cohort of companies in the 2016 i.Lab at UVA Incubator is Respit Solutions, which seeks to play a significant role in alleviating the global refugee crisis.
For a company that seeks to tackle an issue of great urgency and endless complexity, Respit Founder and University of Virginia Darden School of Business student Seth Hooper (Class of 2017) has a vision for Respit that imagines a model of simplicity, with all of the tools a government or relief agency would need for refugee relief integrated into a system that can be quickly dispatched to areas of need.
A “refugee camp in a box,” as he calls it.
Although the current global refugee crisis has shone a spotlight on the needs of displaced people, Hooper’s time spent in Haiti, military service and lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina have long convinced him there was a better way to respond to and temporarily house those impacted by humanitarian needs and natural disasters.
“I’m a former army medic,” Hooper said. “Throughout my career in the military, I’ve always been about this notion of getting everything you need, put it in a package and then put it where it’s needed.”
Hooper’s refugee camp in a box envisions a prestaged unit that can be dispatched to crisis areas in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.
Although long confident in the utility of his idea, Hooper’s business was born out of unexpected and a not-altogether-welcome turn of events. Shortly after enrolling in the Darden School’s Global MBA for Executives program, Hooper learned that his position as a project manager at an insurance company was being eliminated. Downsized on a Monday, Hooper said by Wednesday he had committed to going all-in on his new venture.
Instead of using the skills and knowledge to propel his existing career, he would use them to forge an altogether different one.
“The beauty of the GEMBA program and the Darden community is I now had an incubator in which I could let that idea germinate with a lot of great subject matter experts around me that I can tap into to help me pull together starting a business,” Hooper said. “Ultimately, I’m trying to move the needle on a global policy issue. I can’t think of a better launchpad than here with the Darden community to be able to do that.”
Themes of entrepreneurship and venture creation are woven throughout the GEMBA curriculum and each GEMBA residency, culminating in sessions with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in the Second Year residency in Silicon Valley.
Hooper’s plans for starting the business were further quickened when he successfully applied for a spot in the i.Lab Incubator, joining more than 20 other startups for the 10-week summer curriculum. In addition to a deep dive into the practical world of forming and growing a business entity, the i.Lab experience has introduced Hooper to mentors and practitioners across the University and wider Darden network.
Hooper is now finalizing a business plan that he hopes will enable him to attract seed money ahead of building a functional prototype.
The former army medic plans to further inform his plans during the September GEMBA residency in Europe. In addition to the curriculum, Hooper plans a visit to the massive refugee camps in Calais, France, and Tempelhof Airport in Germany; excursions that will allow him to test some of conceptions he’s been formulating in the i.Lab.
“Traveling around the world, and seeing firsthand the concepts you are studying in class, just brings a different flavor and understanding to an education that you wouldn’t otherwise have just being in residence here,” Hooper said.
In addition to giving him the boost to build his business in earnest and see portions of the global residencies through new lenses, the i.Lab experience further bonded Hooper to the community.
“The biggest trepidation I had in going into the GEMBA program is that I wanted to be a part of the Charlottesville community and the alumni network that goes along with that,” Hooper said. “In going through the GEMBA program, I’ve been exposed to the global alumni network. And because of being accepted into the i.Lab, I’m getting that Charlottesville experience I had hoped for.”
Although Hooper’s goal — to fundamentally change the world’s approach to disaster response from a reactive model to one of planned response — is an audacious one, with the assistance of the i.Lab, the GEMBA program and the Darden network, Hooper feels emboldened and empowered to push forward.
“As we sit here in the long shadow of Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s greatest diplomats, I am pleased to have developed an idea that seeks to fundamentally change global policy,” Hooper said. “We all come together in this space and use this as a springboard to hopefully improve the world.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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