"Non-Violence" by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd at United Nations. Photo by Leo Colfax.

After the mass shooting at Umpqua College in Oregon in October, Liza Tresser, a Carnegie Mellon MBA student, watched a clearly frustrated President Obama challenge the media during a press conference to “do more” to prevent gun violence. She, too, was frustrated.

“I wondered why he wasn’t challenging schools to do more. Challenge us to try to solve this problem,” Tresser says. So she took on the challenge herself.

The result is CMU Idea Space: Innovative Solutions for Gun Violence and Gun Safetya workshop that will be held on campus the weekend of March 18th and open to all. The first Idea Space was held in 2015 as a business case competition focused on social issues, like recycling and education. She had the idea to focus this year’s competition on just one subject, gun violence and gun safety, with participation from people of diverse backgrounds, all working towards real-life results.

“The biggest goal of this is to have a non-political platform where people can work together who may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum and come up with ideas that might save some lives,” Tresser says. The ideas can range from proposals for new businesses, tech products and social and educational programs—like how to respond if you’re in a situation with gun violence—and civil planning, such as creating safe zones.

While the participants will be pitching and developing ideas, it’s far more than a mental exercise, she stresses. In effect, they are creating startups, and the winning idea gets to work with Zero Six Eight, an incubator devoted to helping entrepreneurial ex-convicts develop innovative products and services into businesses.

The Idea Space process

Before the actual three-day workshop, individuals can submit their ideas through the Idea Space website or by emailing them to Tresser. When they submit the idea, they can either take ownership of it, working on it at the workshop, or they can simply present the idea, leaving it open for others to develop.

On the evening of Friday, March 18th, the event will begin with a reception and keynote speaker. Then people will deliver one-minute pitches that include their idea and who they are. “Then they’ll say what they need. Maybe a developer, a marketing person, someone familiar with commercializing ideas, etc.,” says Tresser.

Each idea will then be posted around the room on large sticky notes and participants can then vote with smaller notes. The 14 ideas with the most votes will be chosen for the competition, then people will mingle and network, discussing ideas they particularly like, and divulging their background and skill sets before joining a team.

Tresser says diversity in skills and background are important to the process, to get the greatest mix of input. “No more than two people from a community group, as we are calling it, can be on a team together. For example, no more than two people from the Tepper School of Business or a particular department at Pitt or professional background, just to make sure the teams are really diverse,” she says.

Teams will start working on Friday evening, then Saturday is the big work day, when coaches will arrive to help the teams, asking questions, and assisting in overcoming hurdles. The coaches include representatives from local startup accelerators such as AlphaLab Gear  and the Blast Furnace, and from schools such as Dr. Paul Harper from the Katz Graduate School of Business and Dr. Renee Clark, a former dean at Community College of Allegheny County.

Sunday is judging day, when the ideas will be presented and the winning ideas chosen. The judges come from a broad background, including CMU’s chief of police, the director of organizing from CeaseFirePA, a statewide coalition of mayors, police chiefs and others, and representatives from financial companies Birchmere Advisors and Ferrum Capital Partners.

Liza Tresser
Liza Tresser

Tresser hopes the Idea Space weekend is only the beginning, and she’s already planning a future gathering for the workshop’s participants. “A lot of times with these competitions you have great ideas but they just end with the weekend,” she says. “Our hope is also to have a future post-event so we can bring the people back together who really enjoyed networking together and had ideas they became really passionate about.”

Ultimately, she says, her goal is to challenge schools in other cities, like Boston or Chicago, to hold the same sort of event and take on the issue of ending gun violence and promoting gun safety.

“CMU has been really supportive of this idea and it’s actually been a great way for me to get to know my school a lot better,” she says. “Plus the buy-in and support I’ve been getting from such a wide range of people, including my dean, Laurie Weingart, who was the first one I approached with the idea, professor Harper, and Kit Mueller of Fygment, have been amazing.”

The key factor that’s kept her so passionate, Tresser says, is the help and enthusiasm of fellow students. “It’s incredible how many times I’ve talked about the event to people and they’ve said ‘I want to participate, I was held at gunpoint’ or ‘My friend was killed,’” she says. “Almost everybody I talked to had some connection to gun violence or gun safety issues. It’s a problem they want to help solve.”

To submit ideas or to register, visit the Idea Space website. Members of the community are welcome to join, as long as they can commit to at least two hours on Friday, three hours on Saturday, and two hours on Sunday. Space is limited.

Jonathan Wander

'Burgh-loving Jonathan Wander (Twitter: @jmwander) has written for various publications including Men’s Health, and has gratefully guest-posted on amazing sites like That’s Church.