(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.