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A Farm Girl at Heart, USC Marshall Graduate Finds Fit in Sustainability Innovation

A Farm Girl at Heart, USC Marshall Graduate Finds Fit in Sustainability Innovation

Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship graduate follows entrepreneurial spirit to create impact.

Laurel Rankin

Laurel Rankin hopes to use her MSSE degree to create an impact with sustainability.

[Photo courtesy of Rankin]

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Laurel Rankin grew up near the border of Maryland, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — a town made famous in the Civil War. For Rankin, who is graduating from USC Marshall School of Business Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship (MSSE) Program this May, it was more notably home to her father’s fruit farm. As a young girl, she would travel to farmer’s markets in Washington, D.C., offering free samples of apples, peaches, plums, and pears, fomenting her passion not just for good, sustainably grown produce, but also for entrepreneurship.

“I would wear a bonnet and introduce myself to people,” Rankin said.

This entrepreneurial spirit followed Laurel from this moment to one of the biggest milestones of her young adult life: moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting.

“You’re selling yourself like this is your job, like you are an entrepreneur, and your product is you,” Rankin said. “Most of the job is not getting the thing you put yourself out there for.”

Despite some success, the gig economy proved exhausting. Reconnecting with her farming roots, she began working at Renewable Resources Group (RRG), a firm that creates value for investors through partnerships that promote sustainable assets through water management, habitat conservation, renewable energy, and more. As RRG grew, so did Rankin’s aspirations.

A true entrepreneur knows that big ideas are just one part of the puzzle, so Rankin sought mentorship, community, and resources to bolster her potential career contributions. USC Marshall’s MSSE program provided exactly what she was looking for — a non-traditional program that married social impact with concrete business skills that could drive sustainable innovation.

Through her time in the MSSE program, Rankin has added incredible tools to her kit. In her human-centric design course, taught by Senior Lecturer Abby Fifer Mandell, Rankin learned about customer discovery and the importance of identifying if an idea will work for your market.

In her accounting for sustainability class, which was taught by Professor of Accounting, Finance and Business Economics Richard Sloan, she dove into companies’ sustainability reports and learned how business leaders measure social and environmental impact. One of the biggest takeaways, she said, was, “You must be willing to change your idea multiple times.”

In so many ways, her years acting, auditioning, and hustling at side gigs prepared Rankin for her future in business. “When you’re creating a business, you’re also creating a character. You’re creating a story and a vision for what it is that you want other people to purchase, support, or be a part of.”

As graduation day nears, Rankin is looking forward to the next chapter, but admits there is a lot she will miss about the Trojan experience. “The [MSSE] cohort that you go in with shares a sense of values,” she said. “Everyone has a similar end goal, but we all take different paths to get there.” Among her favorite memories were attending competitions like the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge and engaging with groups like Marshall Net Impact.

When you’re creating a business, you’re also creating a character. You’re creating a story and a vision for what it is that you want other people to purchase, support, or be a part of.

— Laurel Rankin

MSSE ’24

She also learned a lot from BSEL’s Jacobson Family Sustainable Impact Lecture Series, as well as other USC events across campus. “Having access to that caliber of speakers, who can come in and talk with students is really valuable,” she said. “It also reinforces the network that you have access to as part of the Trojan family.”

For her next project, Rankin is creating a new character: a clean product entrepreneur. The idea, which she developed in partnership with MSSE ’24 Olivia Salcedo, was initially pitched in Professor Jill Kickul’s “Feasibility Analysis for Social Ventures” class. At the heart of it is Rankin’s enduring passion for clean, environmentally friendly products that are accessible to all.

“Olivia and I are really passionate about environmental sustainability,” Rankin said. The pair liked aspects of a discount store model — namely its convenience and affordability — but identified numerous issues with the products, which are cheap and made-to-break. This is where entrepreneurship begins: identification of a problem that needs to be solved.

The duo plans to start small with a limited catalog of products they can present at farmers markets and mercados around Los Angeles to see what people are willing to take a chance on. Later, they hope to move into a small brick and mortar storefront in a low-income community. “Every product will have been vetted by us on certain attributes for sustainability. But people will purchase these products because they’re convenient and affordable.”

“I’m coming out of this program in a place where I can pursue my dreams and financial security at the same time,” Rankin said, “And that feels really good.”