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Sneakers for Success
Social entrepreneur gets a kick-start from the UMass Innovation Challenge
UMass alumnus Samuel Del Pilar stands with Forest Park art sneaker.

"I want to use the energy and excitement of the sneaker subculture to keep kids in school."
- Samuel del Pilar

"Where I grew up," says Samuel del Pilar II, "everybody would look at your sneakers before they looked at your face." As a teen in Queens, New York, he bought new sneakers every couple of weeks and ditched school with friends to line up at the store for new releases. Cool sneakers were central to sports, music, and fashion. "Sneakers brought everyone together," he explains.

A senior in mechanical engineering, del Pilar is channeling his considerable sneaker smarts into the UMass Innovation Challenge. The competition, a cross-campus collaboration launched in 2005, inspires innovation and entrepreneurship among the student body, and builds upon the breadth and depth of research taking place at the flagship campus. The Innovation Challenge spans the academic year—giving students prime access to mentoring, expert advice, and networking along the way. Del Pilar is walking in the shoes of an entrepreneur as he races through the stages of the competition. Thanks to alumni and industry sponsors, as much as $67,500 will be awarded through the Innovation Challenge this year. In April, finalists will compete for more than $50,000 in prize money and the winner will be fast-tracked through the first round of the high-stakes 2012 MassChallenge.

Del Pilar calls his brainchild Sneakers for Success. Through this organization he aims to empower and inspire underrepresented kids via their fascination with footwear. He’s certain he can connect with sixth- through tenth-graders with a hip sneaker-based curriculum that will encompass design, marketing, budgeting, and more.

Del Pilar’s Innovation Challenge team includes recent Isenberg School of Management grad Josh Hernandez ’11, five undergraduates, and faculty advisor Professor of Kinesiology Joseph Hamill, whose research includes the mechanics of the lower extremities during locomotion. Unlike some other university competitions, Innovation Challenge project leaders are current students or recent alumni who are encouraged to form multidisciplinary teams. At least half of the team members must be alumni and a faculty mentor is required.

In October, Sneakers for Success won $500 in the first phase of the Innovation Challenge. Del Pilar quickly spent the prize money on promotional T-shirts and folded priceless feedback from alumni and industry judges into his team’s preparation for the next hurdles: a succinct “elevator pitch” (designed to pique interest during an elevator ride) and a written executive summary.

In December, del Pilar wore Nike Blazer sneakers to present the two-minute pitch to judges. The panel posed such questions as, “What makes your product different from other customized sneakers?” “How will you generate income?”

Del Pilar’s team took away $750 from the elevator pitch and is now positioned for the mini-business-plan round. The group in sneakers will face formidable competition, including such potential rivals as a team led by a PhD in biosciences with a better microplate for tissue culture, a group looking to manufacture inexpensive disaster shelters, and computer science students with software that reduces the energy consumption of battery powered devices, among others.

Del Pilar has taken advantage of an array of UMass paths to innovation and entrepreneurship. He took a BDIC introduction to entrepreneurship class. He did an independent study on shoe design in Professor Hamill’s biomechanics lab and had a summer internship at Reebok in Canton, Mass. Through his campus connections, he piloted Sneakers for Success in Springfield, Mass., in December. He’s involved in TRGGR, a campus-based media collective focused on positive hip-hop culture. And, he’s worked with a local footwear retailer.

These days, del Pilar applies the fervor he once brought to sneaker shopping to social entrepreneurship. “I want to use the energy and excitement of the sneaker subculture to keep kids in school,” he says. “This is for real.”

Reprinted with permission, UMass Magazine Spring 2012