Lend for Philly is a contest designed for college students. But the ultimate winner, say its organizers, will be small businesses.

Students in the region who take up the challenge by Lend for America, a national nonprofit microlender, will be equipped with a smartphone app and required to map existing small businesses around their schools.

They must also ascertain two specific things from their owners: what they need the most, and how many employees they have.

The winning university team - the one that maps the most businesses by May 1 - will be awarded $5,000. That must be used to set up a campus microfinance institution (MFI) that will issue loans or training services to local small businesses.

Through the effort, Lend for America, formed in 2009, also hopes to trigger the formation of three other campus MFIs, to add to 24 others across the country. Together they have issued $1.7 million in microloans, said Vanessa Carter, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based organization.

"There's more than 50 colleges and universities in the Delaware Valley region," Carter said. "We see these colleges and universities as having a talented and motivated labor pool that is untapped. . . . At the same time, it will bolster student commitment to social change in Philadelphia and strengthen the culture of innovation in Philadelphia."

Confirmed participants so far include the University of Pennsylvania and Haverford College, Carter said.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is providing $75,000 to, in part, help pay for the launch of the Lend for Philly contest, its $5,000 prize, and a boot camp for participants planned for April, and as loan capital for the four MFIs.

The contest is a first for Lend for America. Working with the nonprofit is also a first for the Knight Foundation - and a natural partner given Knight's interest in finding ways for the region to attract and retain talent, said Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program manager.

Building connections between college students and local businesses "helps connect these young people further to the Philadelphia community," Frisby-Greenwood said. "The more connections they make, the more likely they are to stay here post-graduation."

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