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Two-day ‘Champions of Change Challenge’ tasked Philander students to solve a real-world problem with innovative solutions for $5,000 worth of prizes

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LITTLE ROCK, ARK. – On Feb. 11 and 15, in the heart of Black History Month and National Entrepreneurship Week, Philander Smith College and Southern Bancorp teamed up to host the “Champions of Change Challenge,” an innovation competition for students of the college to create new solutions to real challenges, showcase their technical and problem-solving skills, and network with local business leaders. Participating students were grouped into teams, each competing for $5,000 in prize money. Winners were selected by a panel of local judges.

The Champions of Change Challenge (CCC) was created by Dr. Laza Razafimanjato, Executive Director for Institutional Effectiveness, Strategy, and Innovation at Philander Smith College, and Sam Carrasquillo, Director of Strategy & Growth at TeamWALT, Southern Bancorp’s innovation division, which spearheaded the financial institution’s involvement in the project. From the first days of planning to the final day of the event, their aims were always student-focused, and to create an atmosphere of empowerment and “community over competition” for all involved.  

“My hope for CCC is to be a safe place for students, companies, and the community to come together to innovate, collaborate, and be the change they want to see,” said Sam Carrasquillo. “We wanted a challenge where students would be uncomfortable and nervous, but also excited to push the boundaries of what is possible, because there’s no innovation without confrontation. We saw today that we can come from different backgrounds, but still come together to solve problems. We saw today that competing companies can work together for the greater good. Today, we saw the next generation seize opportunity. Today, we saw change.”

On Feb. 11, day one of the event, students collaborated within their respective teams to come up with their solution to a challenge facing real people – closing the homeownership gap for Black and African American communities. The teams worked independently to create business ideas – from apps to credit unions to nonprofits – that could be scaled and applied in the real world to potentially solve this historic problem. Today, less than half of African Americans in the United States own homes, compared to a 75 percent homeownership rate among white households.  

Local business leaders volunteered to help coach the students through their ideas and business plans, including Hema Patel, Vice President, Regulatory Auditor at First Arkansas Bank & Trust; Mark Wilson, President and Chief Operating Officer of First Arkansas Bank & Trust; TaNeesha Broady, Quality Assurance Engineer at TeamWALT; Vance Smiley, Chief Innovation Officer of Southern Bancorp; Christopher Lewis, Director of Impact Assessment & Data Analytics at Southern Bancorp; and Broderick Daniels, Director of Human Resources at Southern Bancorp.

On Feb. 15, during the “career mingle” and final day of the event, the teams then presented these ideas to a panel of three judges – Viji Kuruvilla, Vice President of Lexicon; Pamela Reed, Managing Director of Entrepreneurship & Community Programs at the Venture Center; and Anthony Young, President of Southern Bancorp Community Partners – who decided the finalists and the overall winner of the $2,000 grand prize.

The results of the competition were as follows:

First Place ($2,000)

Team 5 (Amari Brantley, Chinwe Uwolloh, Janyece Hamilton), who created the idea of S.T.A.R. Incorporated, a credit union that would provide financial literacy, down payment assistance, credit building, equitable access to capital, and employment partnerships.

Finalists ($1,000 each)

Team 4 (Ashton Cartwright, Jamondra Glenn, Otito Udedibor), for the idea of an organization called Guaranteed Trust that could serve as a link between potential homeowners and bank partners, and create positive outcomes for both parties.

Team 8 (Immanuella Umoren, Kenna Agbugba, Michael Prescot Jr., Seyi Dada), for the solution of Own Up, a financial institution and mobile app that would increase access to support, resources, and education for users, and then connect those candidates with banks as eligible for financial assistance.

*The two other final teams were presented with $500 each for participating.

“Through this great opportunity, my eyes were opened to our ability to make a change in the world,” said Michael Prescot Jr., a sophomore at Philander Smith who participated in the competition. “With all of the coaching, networking, and informative sessions, our success was assured. This opportunity is one that I will never forget, and I hope that it continues to grow in the upcoming months and years to come.”

The Champions of Change Challenge was made possible by its generous partners and sponsors: Arkansas STEM Coalition; Baptist Health; Central Arkansas Water; Conway Management; Encore Bank; eSCO Processing & Recycling; First Arkansas Bank & Trust; J Kelly Referrals & Information Services; Monterrey Law Firm; Philander Smith College; Pulaski County Title; Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull; Simmons Bank; Southern Bancorp; TeamWALT; and the Venture Center.

About Southern Bancorp
Founded in 1986 by some of the nation’s leading political, business, and philanthropic leaders with an initial investment of $10 million, Southern Bancorp, Inc., along with its development partners – Southern Bancorp Bank and Southern Bancorp Community Partners – has grown into a $2.6 billion asset organization with 56 locations serving 65,000 customers across two states. Southern Bancorp has a unique array of financial products and services designed to help individuals at all stages of life’s financial journey – from teaching kids how to save to helping entrepreneurs and families realize the American Dream. Southern Bancorp is a certified Community Development Financial Institution, certified B-Corp, and proud member of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values. Learn more at and