Ready to get inspired?!
I received a major dose of optimism last week in New York City at the Hult Prize finale. From the get-go, it was clear that the Hult Prize, an accelerator intended to encourage social impact businesses, was different than its counterparts because it sets out to create social startups from scratch. 10x: That’s the saying tossed around Hult Prize. Make everything ten times better than the norm.
Each year, the Hult Prize competition is sponsored in collaboration with the Hult Prize Foundation, Hult International Business School, and the Clinton Global Initiative, with the goal of solving some of society’s largest problems ranging from food insecurity (2013) to health care (2014). This year’s Hult Prize challenged students to build sustainable and scalable social enterprises to address the scarcity of early childhood education in poor urban communities across the globe.
A panel of esteemed judges, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus; Former Prime Minster of Australia Julia Gillard; Charles Kane, Chairman of the One Laptop per Child and senior lecturer in Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management and Global Economics at MIT Sloan School of Management; and Mohamed Ibrahim, Chairman of Mo Ibrahim Foundation, were tapped to select the best idea.
The Prize is now in its sixth year, and anticipations and expectations ran high. The pool of 22,000 applications had been whittled down to six finalists. These innovative teams were a global mix, coming from business schools in Spain, United Kingdom, China, Canada, United States and Taiwan.
Ahmad Ashkar, the CEO of the Hult Prize Foundation, opened the evening event with a call-out to his key sponsor, Dr. Stephen Hodges, the President of Hult International Business School, thanking him for his help in making the dream of the Hult Prize a reality.
No excuses: carry on the fight for social good
Then, Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, took the stage and encouraged the finalists to continue their work no matter the outcome of the Hult Prize.
“You represent the best. The fact you are here is important. The fact you have designed something for a very specific social problem is very important,” said Yunus. “I hope your ideas aren’t wasted if you don’t win the prize. Prizes are only recognition. It doesn’t mean those participated were in vain. I hope you do not give it up. Use your educated power to solve the many problems around us.”
– Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Mission: close education gap in developing world
Then the nail-biting work began as the first three finalist teams—Attollo, Libromat, and teleStory—took turns on stage to pitch their ideas to the panel of judges, who then led a short, but challenging Q&A session.
During the event’s intermission, Mohammed Ashour, CEO of Aspire Food Group and the winner of the 2013 Hult Prize, took the podium and gave a speech of hope and a call to action. Ashour told the audience that once a student enters the Hult Prize competition, that person is forever transformed by the experience. “It cannot be unlearned,” said Ashour. “You learn that you can actually accomplish something extraordinary.”
When the program resumed, the final three teams—IMPCT, Somos, and Tembo—took their turn at pitching ideas and responding to tough, think-on-your-feet questions from the judges.
Then the judges withdrew to their deliberations while the audience waited a ten-minute eternity to hear the decision. Ashkar took the opportunity to recognize Bob Harrison, CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative, and thank him for his support of the Hult Prize.
When the short intermission was over, President Bill Clinton, founding chairman of the Clinton Global Initiative, strode onto the stage, startling those who were still networking and hadn’t yet responded to the call for the audience to be seated. Half a second later, everyone, and that’s close to a thousand attendees, took a seat regardless who it belonged to. As President Clinton was formally announced, the crowd jumped to their feet and erupted into applause.
Before announcing the winner, President Clinton thanked the finalists for participating and urged them to pursue their innovations. “I encourage you all to find other ways to implement these proposals into reality,” said President Clinton.
Then to loud cheers, President Clinton identified the winner of the Hult Prize as IMPCT, the team of business students from National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.
President Clinton noted the success of kiva.org and his amazement that the idea hadn’t been developed before now. “If you look at success of kiva.org, it’s surprising that we have not seen the idea of micro-giving applied to more social problems,” said Clinton. “I’m excited to watch it unfold.”
The members of IMPCT were ecstatic. They shook hands with the judges and then were presented the very distinctive trophy by President Clinton. As IMPCT celebrated with family and supporters, the collective energy of those present rose even higher.
Throughout the evening, the room was electric, the mood charged with positive possibility. There were plenty of noted civic and business leaders as well as diplomats present for the Hult Prize finale, but the excitement in the audience steadily built from within the Hult Prize Foundation family. In addition to the family members present from the six Hult Prize finalist teams and the Hult Prize Foundation leadership team, there was a sizable group of current and past students in attendance from the global network of Hult International Business schools. Hult alumni had traveled a good distance to take part in this celebration of social good and to bear witness to the global drive for purposeful change.
Playcares: powered by new impact investment platform
So what exactly is the $1 million idea? IMPCT’s solution is to build locally controlled playcares in poor urban communities around the world that would then be owned globally. Anyone anywhere and with any amount of money can invest in IMPCT Playcares. An investor chooses to invest in a local entrepreneur in a poor urban area, most likely a mother running an informal daycare who does not have the capital to make it a real school. IMPCT and its partners work with entrepreneur, and the investor and IMPCT are repaid over time if the new business is successful. These desperately-needed playcares, offering a play-based Montessori-adapted curriculum for children aged six and under, would help close the knowledge gap that prevents children from escaping the poverty they were born into.
What is unique about IMPCT’s approach is the front-end online platform that they built from scratch with the help of their advisor, Scott Weiner, the CTO of Boston-based company called NeuEon. An advanced yet user-friendly platform, it will streamline global fundraising. The platform’s communication functionality will be a hit with investors small and large alike, for it provides a level of financial transparency that has not been seen before.
Haven’t you ever wondered what exactly happens to the money you’ve given to a nonprofit or charity? According to Weiner, with semi-real time updates from this platform, investors in the playcares are always kept ‘in-the-know’ about the progress of the school, including the ability to view photos of the school and kids as well as the school’s performance and financials.
This all may sound complex, but at the heart of IMPCT’s ingenuity is its elegant simplicity. IMPCT set out to augment existing products and behavior, not to force behavioral change.
“Playcares.com. It’s taking an existing product set and behavior and then including it in a startup, which is so key to startups in urban slums—don’t change behavior because they’re not doing it,” said Ashkar. “Also, the team is not changing the behavior for the Western world. Kiva has taught the world how to give money online. What IMPCT is doing is saying, we’re taking that model—that was 1.0—and you can think of us the Kiva 2.0.”
Failure leads to win
Winning idea, check. But the remarkable thing is that IMPCT lost its regional competition, held this past March in Dubai, one of the regional contests that determined the five regional finalists who would go on to compete in the Hult Prize finale. Despite this failure, the team fought their way back in the online or ‘wildcard’ round of the competition to secure the sixth finalist spot.
As Karim Samra, COO of the Hult Prize Foundation, noted, IMPCT’s story from failure to success epitomizes the journey all entrepreneurs experience at some point.
“They are the ultimate comeback story. They lost in Dubai and were devastated at the time, but they picked themselves up,” said Samra. “This is such a classic entrepreneur story—you fail many times before you succeed. I’d say 50% of the effort is just picking yourself up and trying again. They did that and they succeeded.”
Crazy big idea, crazy big impact
Inspired yet? Alright, let’s look at the impact of just this year’s Hult Prize. By 2020, IMPCT expects to build 7,500 playcares in poor urban communities, improve the lives of approximately 10.5 million kids, and create roughly $5.2 million in profits you can feel good about.
IMPCT dreams big and works big. Andres Escobar, co-founder of IMPCT, encourages entrepreneurs to do whatever it takes to manifest their dreams. “Anyone who has a crazy idea, go for it,” said Escobar. “It doesn’t matter how crazy it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re afraid of leaving your job, if you’re going, go all the way.”
The Hult Prize measures the quality of innovation by whether it’s ten times better than what’s come before. This leaves no moment to rest, no room to be lulled into complacency. Because the stakes are so high, the hunger for change and a commitment to excellence must be the force that drives innovation forward. After all, if you’re aim is to positively transform the world in a disruptive, irreversible way, then there’s no time for business as usual. There’s only 10X.
image credits: Jonathan Fickies/AP Images for Hult Prize Foundation; newshult.edu
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Parisa Jade Baharian is a Washington, DC-based contributor in the US. She currently works as a freelance writer, editor, and research consultant with experience in business intelligence collection and analysis across a range of industries and market segments. She serves as Chief Editor, English Language for social-startups.de and cover many topics, including education and social innovation.