(Video: The NYT's Nick Kristof, with Ahmad Ashkar-Hult GCC Chairman & Hult's Michelle Bergland announcing the 1st Hult Global Challenge at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting 2010/CGI)
(HN, 4/26/12) - In 2009, former Hult Business School graduate Ahmad Ashkar who had, prior to business school been an investment banker, asked his fellow MBA students a simple question - "Will you accept this challenge?"
In the intervening three years thousands of his peers answered the call - as did the Clinton Global Initiative, luminaries such as Grameen Bank Founder Muhammad Yunus, Unilever Chair Michael Treschow, and NGO's of the likes of Water.org, One Laptop Per Child, Habitat for Humanity International and SolarAid to name a few.
Today, the Hult GCC’s annual case competition is the world’s largest and most internationally acclaimed `solution finding' contest, utilizing a unique model of harvesting the vast opportunities of crowd sourcing; featuring thousands of students competing from over 100 countries for a $1 million prize and the chance to work with a prominent charity to solve a pressing global issue.
Ahmad's own AHA moment came as nhe was getting ready to graduate from the Hult Business School 3 years ago. Prior to school he'd been working as an investment banker in Islamic banking at a prominent financial institution, when the global markets took a turn for the worst.
As a Palestinian-American, Ahmad was 11 when his family first made it to the US. He says he was "inspired by little bits and nuggets, pieces of information of how the world was coming together and what he saw as the possibility to make the world a better place through social investment, as a way to do business."
In 2009, as he was just finishing at Hult, Chuck Kane (now the former President and COO of One Laptop Per Child-OLPC), visited Ashkar's class for a talk about, "Innovation and social innovation. I had never heard you could make money by doing good," says Ahmad.
"I thought I would go back to Islamic banking after business school. But, after I asked a question in the class, Chuck Kane said to me, `If I had more people like you guys working on our business problems in the education space, we'd be allot more efficient in how we do things'."
At that point, Ahmad was the elected representative of the Hult Business School `Student Action Club' and had wanted to start a real estate focus - but he found no one would do it with him.
So he turned `idea into opportunity' by partnering with Kane and OLPC in the early days offering, "Charles what if I was able to bring you our students to look at OLPC from a business perspective?"
"I had a vision where I could make money by doing good, but, I knew that meant we needed also to be first to market with innovative solutions that honestly, target more than a billion people. To any business, that's huge," says Ahmad.
Ashkar enlisted the support of Hult Business School management - the school's 5 global campuses were a perfect place to start - convincing school management that Hult could become a Hub for social innovation. The idea `caught on like wildfire'; within 60 days the project had 100 different business schools committed to participating and engaging their students in the challenge.
"We developed a methodology of looking at the people at the bottom of the pyramid, the people we felt had no connection to the world as participants," he said.
In the first year the Hult GCC worked with OLPC on an education initiative - conducting the whole effort as a case challenge of its own; and without prize money.
The second year, (2010) when deciding to continue with the project, Ashkar revealed something extraordinary to Hult's board. He had empirical date from the competition to show the students who had entered were motivated by the mission of solving a global problem - even as the world economy continued to teeter.
The point? Future world business leaders can look at the world in a new way, and find innovative tools to withstand a crisis. If this was possible, think of what the bright minds of the world could do together, with smarts and heart. "Today's MBA's breed tomorrow's executives," says Ashkar.
"The Hult GCC is the fuel for the shift we feel is required in the marketplace. And our students are the financial spark of our generation."
Now three years old, the revolution which Ashkar, Hult, and the globally-local collective which includes the Clinton Global Initiative, OLPC, Habitat for Humanity, SolarAid, Water.org, along with thousands of future business leaders who will go on to build the world which they want - is exponentially growing. It's inspiration, and touch points number in the hundreds of thousands worldwide.
Ahmad says, "The lipstick items of the Hult Global Case Challenge - the million dollar prize - the well-known employers these students want to get in front of, these are draws. No doubt. But I've seen it time and again, students get hooked. I started my career thinking I was going to be a big banker. But now I think I can be a social entrepreneur."
The message to business is, there are - big - opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid. Ashkar advocates that business can benefit by realizing that the market can be maximized by focusing on new finance models, not maintaining `stale mindsets'.
For instance, winners from the first year, Carnegie Mellon, built a micro-commerce network that could turn the OLPC education device into a transactional platform for the children's parents; and use the laptop as a hotspot. (It's now being built into next edition OLPC devices.)
The second year of the competition the University of Cambridge Judge Business School worked to solve a Water.org challenge, and won with a new kind of water telecommunications subsidy project, working with mobile operators in Haiti, which turned a profit in the first year. The model is being considered for rollout in India next.
Unlike the previous two years, three NGO partners were selected in 2011 and announced at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in September, to benefit from Hult's GCC sourcing work; who then create their own case challenges for the students.
The demand to grow was heard from the students too. "In 2010 the contest became oversubscribed in the first ten days so making it three times as big seemed logical," says Ahmad. This year the challenge had 5000 worldwide participants, many working in teams.
Then, the race is on with local level and regional presentations taking place in Boston, San Francisco, Shanghai, Dubai, London - and winners chosen there, make the trip to New York City. This week sees the top teams present at the finale at The New York Public Library and both President Clinton and Grameen Bank Founder Muhammed Yunus will keynote, with NGO judges in attendance.
"We're looking for replicable solutions," says Ashkar. "If we can do more pilots, and move solutions out to suit a multitude of markets on a broad scale, we can exponentially make positive, disruptive change happen."
WHAT'S IN IT FOR NGO'S?
Case Study: One Laptop Per Child
Mission: "We aim to revolutionize the way to make education affordable for everyone by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop; designing hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. Children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future."
Challenge: Can OLPC get 10 million laptops to children in 5 years, drive the industry to make laptops more affordable, and improve education with its principles?
Five Questions for Chairman, CEO Rodrigo Arboleda Halaby
Why was it important for OLPC to partner with the Hult Global Case Challenge?
OLPC was already up and running, but I always think, we can be better. You need to keep your eyes open and be disruptive. OLPC is all about finding a solution. a new kind of thinking. What Nicholas Negroponte proposed with OLPC was to reduce to one-tenth the cost of a laptop, making it more accessible to the global marketplace for people who can't afford a $1000 device. Ours was - about $100. And was a symbolic example of how we can use innovative technology to do it. With our work, we are saying, "those that want to prevent and do something about poverty, please raise your hands and work with us. We want to bring the world into the 21st Century. "
Accomplishments already of OLPC:
Our `One-to-One' marketing campaign has been a win-win. The idea is `Give one, Get one'. Unfortunately, the IRS forbade us from going this route for more than 45 days if we were to preserve our non-profit status. Secondly, the shifting from instructionism - what we continue to do in the current educational system - into constructionism; this is at the hard core of our effort.
For many reasons, whether it's that people don't understand the technology, or they're unfamiliar with it - then, they discourage its implementation. We found we had to educate teachers too so they could understand why and how to use the technology and even the internet to their benefit in the educational setting; all to enhance a child's learning and growth.
We've created accessibility. Which helps to create better `social equality'. Not in-equality.
What we need now is to build our brand for greater impact for social good and shift our brand to include education and transformation. For creating software for kids, we are doing what IBM was doing 20 years ago: shift the emphasis from hardware into software and services. A complete ecosystem of learning-how-to-learn.
Biggest Challenges to reaching your goals there?
When Nicholas called me to help run OLPC, it was during the collapse of the economy 3 years ago. We had been students together at MIT in 1961; and lifelong friends. Throughout my career I've been in business development and suddenly, he felt a new business model was needed. I said you need to switch the cost model to a more sustainable one. Even charities and NGO's must be profitable to support themselves. It's outdated to be dependent totally on donations. We've done it by keeping our internal operating costs down so that most of our revenue goes towards our programs. But it's not enough to grow the program as fast as we'd like. There are lots of kids we could be impacting faster. We need to make the business happen, and we don't have many physical resources to do it. We need partners, and financial resources.
Private sector, public sector, and NGO collaboration is key. We need long-term dialogue, and government is very important to development. In Colombia we're creating a `trust' for social responsibility with local officials and community organizations as an example. This is a fantastic model.
How is the Hult Global Case Challenge Making a Difference for OLPC?
These kids have been working so hard at ideas for innovation and are a wonderful resource who are willing to work as brilliant advisors, for free! OLPC is about creating innovators of our own. We want to develop a global generation of young talent not constrained by any barriers. A generation of innovators, inventors, capable of generating patents. The Hult Global Case Challenge has almost been a learning laboratory for us, providing intellectual capital. All the business cases we have reviewed here have been fascinating and they break away from centuries of old ideas with refreshingly new and unconstrained ones.
Our next steps will be to work with all of our students, winners and not winners, with emphasis on the winning team, at a meeting in May and sketch out details of the winning plan. 80% of our laptop sales have been in Latin America, but we are now embarking in large projects in Africa, India, Southeast Asia-Indonesia Thailand, the Philippines. The next 2-3 years we're focused on Africa: the most challenging and the most rewarding place, where we expect the most immense change. For instance, Rwanda is a delight - they want to become the Singapore of Africa by developing the brain of their children. South Africa - the power engine of Southern Africa, where we are commencing a large and important campaign. India is a continent in itself, I've been there 3 times in the last 6 months. In West Bengal there are 26 million children alone who could use our help.
The next Global Case challenge at Hult-is to create the true global brain trust of citizens. Even with our connectedness we still have disintegrated information and thought. We need to lead to action and social change, and develop intent in our culture. We must leave behind a platform of future growth for our children and grandchildren. By doing so, we can really help save the planet!
Case Study: Habitat For Humanity
Mission: "Through volunteer labor and donations of money and materials, Habitat builds and rehabilitates simple, decent houses alongside our homeowner partner families to provide affordable housing to those who lack adequate shelter. "
Challenge: Can HFHI find the right combination of partnerships, innovative business models, and scalable housing solutions to reach 50 million people (10 million homes) in ten years?
Five Questions for CEO Jonathan Reckford
Why was it important for HFHI to partner with the Hult Global Case Challenge?
The heart of our reason to do this really centers around our desire to do more and be better as an organization. In many ways Habitat has been a movement. We work to give people a decent place to live, and we've been notable at doing this. But the way we look at it we'll still never build as many houses as we want to or serve as many people as need it. Additionally, HFHI has a long and large student volunteer engagement program and we run a global collegiate spring program which young people love to work with. We embrace the chance to pilot new ideas with them.
Accomplishments already of HFHI:
We have to help people understand this better. Housing is about more than physical construction, it's about stability, and what we really see working with families is that what we do, also serves the soul and builds healthy communities.
Biggest Challenges to reaching your goals?
We have a very long waiting list of people wanting our homes. Yet, so many times, housing is left out of the things that people need when it comes to poverty programs. We almost saw housing written out of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. We have to keep the link front and center. Education is important, health is important, but decent housing is key to breaking the cycle of poverty as we see it. Our biggest challenges to getting to where we want to go are land access, funding and access to finance.
Sadly the need is everywhere. 1.6 billion people around the world live in sub standard housing; a billion in urban slums with rapid growth across the world. In Latin America alone we have nearly a billion people living in slums where the population is expected to double over the next 20 years. 70% of urban housing in Sub Saharan Africa and the Caribbean is not in compliance with local regulations. We can't build decent housing fast enough. We need better quality and more quantity.
How is the Hult Global Case Challenge Making a Difference for HFHI?
I'll be a judge at the finals in New York. There are some really creative ideas we've seen already. And it's tough, housing is complicated. You have to know many sectors about how to accomplish housing - zoning, building, culture, etc. It involves complex social and business systems to get it done. Private, civil, governmental all has to work together. It takes bold idealism to think beyond all the hurdles and roadblocks to these changes. It's truly a global set of teams, incredibly diverse people and minds that will make a new model work.
After we choose the winning student teams in NY, we'll next meet with them in May to hash through the details of the program together. We'll take all the best ideas we have and look at where they best align with our strategy and look for ways to pilot it out. From the standpoint of where we want to go with our beneficiaries, we've been looking at ideas such as creating a housing microfinance fund, since access to funding for homeowners is scarce everywhere today. Geographically, HFHI works in 80 countries now across Southeast Asia, East Asia, Sub Saharan Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Eurasia; and we see our strategic plan going deeper into our countries and not wider to more countries at this time.
Case Study: SolarAid
Mission: "Power to the people. Two of the biggest threats facing humanity today are climate change and global poverty. SolarAid helps to combat both by bringing clean, renewable power to the poorest people in the world."
Challenge: Can SunnyMoney get off-grid solar power and light to one million households in Africa by the end of 2013?
Five Questions for CEO Steve Andrews
Why was it important for SolarAid to partner with the Hult Global Case Challenge?
SolarAid was initially established in 2006 and we're still at a very early stage in our model. We haven't even begun to scratch the surface of where we can go and we have a huge amount to gain from the Hult students, it's been amazing.
Accomplishments already of SolarAid:
We realized that in Africa alone, where there are 1 billion people; 650 million people are not connected to the electric grid. Most of them use kerosene lamps - neither healthy or safe - to light their lives. Also, it's expensive; in Kenya for example people spend $75 a year buying kerosene oil. We felt we could catalyze the market and help bring light to people's lives by really embracing the opportunity of the market as a business, so that as we did this for social good, we could be sustainable for ourselves. That's the only way. So, we decided the greatest value we could offer were small portable solar lights, a most mobile idea which helps not just home life, but business life for thousands in Africa.
90% of what we do is executed through SunnyMoney. SolarAid runs SunnyMoney in Africa; we are a retailer of solar energy, and solar energy devices at deeply discounted rates. We sell lights from a whole array of companies. We have three levels of solar lights: an entry level study light, which retails for $8 US; then a range of lights $20-$40 which light up a room and often have the ability to charge a cell phone (which some people use to make money as their own business), and a slate of higher end models between $50-$100 which can light a whole home. By putting one light all day in the sun, you will get three nights of light.
Our customers have become active participants and using this model empowers them. They have demands of us about our service and our sales; it totally vests them with us and we work together.
Biggest Challenges to reaching your goals?
We set ourselves a goal of getting solar power and light to one million households by the end of 2013. Though in order to achieve that we need some real breakthroughs in our thinking. We have to keep going beyond the status quo to create bigger, better, bolder, faster, and cheaper - business - solutions so that we can do the most good. Hard obstacles include capital costs, issues of scaling, lack of credit for buyers, a low level of trust in the community, as well as the cost of advertising being ery difficult and access to the media is very challenging. The needs for such services are across the board geographically. We only work in Africa now but we're focused on growth in West Africa primarily; Nigeria is important to us.
How is the Hult Global Case Challenge Making a Difference for SolarAid?
I was a regional judge in Dubai and I fielded allot of questions from the teams. These students are fearless. Some of the stuff they've come up with or the contacts they are reaching out to on their own to make their plan case are incredible. They are motivated by the `doing' and the difference they can make. I really believe these students can bring us a radical `step change' solution that will totally deliver a million sales next year and leverage the other sectors in what we're doing.
We'll meet again with the students in May and hope to work with them going forward. Our goal as a business over time is to become a Pan African brand and a successful company with a huge social dimension that is able to have a wider catalytic impact on the market for solar lights. We want to engage large companies in building our supply chain as a value chain. We have many more lights to sell!
Every time we sell a light it sits out in the community building a brand that we hope others will see and strive to move their life forward towards with solar. To that end, lights on credit is a program we're working on, and we've also been contacted by potential opportunities in Asia and South America, but that's down the road. We do want to be in 40 countries in Africa by the end of this decade and feel certain we can make an evolutionary change.
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