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CofC students create platform to help Lowcountry businesses compete with online shopping

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Businesses and shops at the corner of King and Liberty streets in Charleston on Oct. 20, 2020. ImpactHub CHS, built in part by four College of Charleston students, aims to help local businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic by providing an online shopping format for locals. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

After the COVID-19 pandemic closed business doors in 2020, four College of Charleston students and two local businessmen developed a platform to drive up e-commerce in the city.

The project, which is called ImpactHub CHS, aims to revitalize the local economy by providing a website for Charleston businesses to sell their products.

While the idea for the company came from Stuart Williams, a local businessman and adjunct professor at the college, four sophomore business students were put to the task of turning it into reality.

The students are all part of the Stuart M. Williams Impact Scholars Program, which gives them the opportunity to work on projects aimed at making a profit while also making a difference. The students wanted to find a way to help local businesses compete with the rise of online shopping during the pandemic.

“All of these local businesses that really thrive off the tourist environment of Charleston, not only did they not have those tourists coming in, but people were at home buying things digitally,” said Jody Bell, one of the students involved with the project. "These local businesses were really struggling." 

While it may look like an Amazon for locals from the outside, ImpactHub is much more than an online shopping destination. The platform is limited to businesses within the Charleston area. Those businesses are then ranked based on the location that a product is made and where it is sold. Businesses with products that are made and sold in Charleston receive the highest ranking, which serves as a way to inform consumers about what businesses are the most likely to help the Charleston economy. 

In addition to benefiting the economy, the platform is targeted to benefited people. 

Williams said the theory he teaches is called "impact economics," and aims to make capitalism more ethical. Aside from teaching the theories in class, Williams' business, In Place Impact, works with companies to apply impact economics in their work. 

"For years, people have been talking about how do we edit capitalism to make it more inclusive," he said. "(Impact economics) makes communities economically, environmentally and socially sustainable for every resident." 

To align with the impact economics goals, the students created an "evangelist" program to go along with ImpactHub CHS. The program gives people the opportunity to work as ambassadors for ImpactHub by marketing the platform in the community.

Williams said the evangelists are often people who do not have the opportunity to find work elsewhere. ImpactHub CHS partnered with Unbound Life, a Charleston business that helps match homebound people with job opportunities. Vishal Patel, owner of Unbound Life, said the ultimate goal is to create a closed loop, where business is benefiting people and people are able to benefit the community. 

"The more we empower these marginalized communities, the more they are able to contribute to society and the better, in general, our society becomes," Patel said. 

When a product is sold on the platform, 90 percent of the profits goes to the business and 10 percent goes to ImpactHub CHS. Of that 10 percent, 6.5 percent goes to the evangelist who introduced the program to the consumer. 

While ImpactHub CHS is working to give back to the community, the people who may be benefiting the most from the project are the students who now have the experience of building a business just two years into college. 

"As a sophomore in college, being able to participate in a startup and an experience such as ImpactHub is incredibly important to my development, the way that I approach business, the way that I approach other people and the way that I envision my goals in the future," said Rex Bingham, one of the students to work on the project. 

For Bell, the ability to work on something that benefits the community and gives her business skills aligns perfectly with her professional goals. 

"We joined this program as underclassmen, and it's a small enough team where we really had a lot of responsibilities," she said. "We've seen this thing be built from the ground up."

The students are accepting businesses to join ImpactHub CHS. They are hosting information sessions on April 6 and 7 via Zoom. Information about the sessions and how to join the platform can be found on the company's website, impactchs.com.

Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.

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