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Fun-loving students with a serious mission—to build schools in Mali

May 2nd, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

By Rebecca Holliday

LOGAN—An innovative group of Utah State students aims to raise $60,000 by the end of the year to build a school in Mali, Africa. The crew of quirky guys is working on a business that raises money for Mali Rising by selling books featuring artwork from artists around the world.

Tyler Tolson, Jake Frisby, James Putnam, and other members of the Denik team take photographs of their books and each other. On one of the counters at their shop are sketchbooks and journals embellished with art and photographs from artists to support Mali Rising, a Sandy, Utah-based non-profit organization established in 2004 aimed at empowering the children of the African nation of Mali through education.

The group builds cost-effective and environmentally sustainable schools, provides learning materials, assist in training teachers and work to improve already-existing, inadequate educational institutions.

Someone climbs onto Frisby’s shoulders, and they pretend to be looking at journals just long enough to shoot a photo for the new website. Amidst the semi-chaos, Tolson answers some questions about the young company.

When the senior communication studies major and company CEO first set out to start a company with a social mission, he says his plan was not to make notebooks. The initial concept was to make figurines through a company called Nerd Projects. But after talking to Frisby and others, the plan changed.

“People liked Tyler’s artwork better than the idea,” Frisby said.

The young company, launched last Fall, designs books that feature artists’ work from Cache Valley and around the world. Some of the books feature Tolson’s art along with other artists’ work. Designers can also submit their work to Denik on the website, where it can be added to the gallery.

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The books aren’t just for looks. Inscribed inside the cover of each one is, “These books build schools,” and a description of the cover art.

“By the end of 2012, we want to build our first school in Mali,” says Tolson, 27. Ten percent of the money from each book goes to Mali Rising to build a school, and 5 percent goes to the artist.

A school in Mail will cost approximately $60,000. Right now, Denik is far from this goal, but, “we plan on our company growing 10 times over the summer,” says Frisby.

The funds to start Denik came from the partners’ own pockets, but everyone who works with the company offers something unique. “Some of us invested our money, some of us invested our talent,” said Putnam, who dubbed “The Imaginator.”

Although the student entrepreneurs have done a lot on their own, they have had help along the way. Tolson consulted Matt Sanders, a USU communication studies professor who is also a member of the Board of Trustees for Mali Rising.

One of the things that makes Mali Rising different from other organizations that help build schools in developing nations is that they get the local village involved, Sanders says.

The group doesn’t just give a community a school. “The charity model just doesn’t work,” Sanders says. With Mali Rising, the villagers must donate 20 percent of the cost of the school, including the land. “It’s a development model, and once it’s done we turn the school over to the village,” which gives the local people a sense of ownership, he said. “The schools are very well taken care of.”

The schools are made of adobe and have solar panels, so adults can use the facilities at night. The building will be lit and also stay relatively cool.

Sanders says he also worked with a group of USU students that raised $6,000 for Aggies for Africa in 2009. The professor says he believes the university and the business school are “avenues that let students be creative.”

The Denik team is taking advantage of that creativity. Tyler’s “lack of fear of failure,” says Sanders, is another big advantages. “The risk for failure while in college is so small,” he said. “I just think it’s OK to give it a shot.”

Denik recently launched a website where people can buy merchandise and see new artwork for books and click a button to “love” them. If a cover gets enough attention, Denik might turn it into a real notebook.

To get closer to their goal of $60,000, the team takes sales trips to sell their books. They attended a music festival in Boise and went to an end-of-the-year bash at University of Utah. Most recently, they sold their merchandise at a gallery opening in Salt Lake.

“It’s just getting our name out there,” Frisby said. “Our primary form of advertising is word of mouth and displaying ourselves for people to see.”

Tolson and Frisby, who will graduate this week, plan to move to Salt Lake. All of the guys who work on Denik will be done with school this summer and, Frisby says, they can devote more time to working on the company.

Sanders says he believes the Denik team is catching on to the future of business: Having a social mission. “I have no doubt that Tyler will eventually sell 50,000 books and build a school.”


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