Business Students Compete To Attack World’s Problems

April 26, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Million-dollar ideas might be hard to come by but budding social entrepreneurs pitched their best Thursday night at New York Public Library in the culmination of the 3rd annual Hult Global Case Challenge.

Starting early this year with 5,000 applications from 300 colleges, 18 teams of business students converged on New York City, with just three emerging as winners. The teams now will work with three nonprofits to try to implement their plans, with the help of a $1million cash grant from Hult.

The third annual event culminated with keynote remarks by Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and former President Bill Clinton.

Hult International Business School (formerly the Arthur D. Little School of Management) is a global business school with campuses in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai. It is named after one of Europe’s leading entrepreneurs Bertil Hult who founded EF Education First, the largest private education company in the world. Hult is ranked in the top 20 business schools in the United States and in the top 100 in the world.

This year’s challenge focused on addressing problems of education, housing and energy, with NGO partners Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and Solar Aid. Last year, the challenge focused on sanitation, with water.org.

Competing were teams from five cities — Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai — in addition to a sixth online, wild-card team. The winning team from each city, in each track, advanced to the all-expense paid final in New York City, where each team presented their solution to a world- class panel of executive judges which included Yunus, KaBOOM! founder Darell Hammond and Rodrigo Arboleda Halaby, CEO of One Laptop Per Child.

“This is all about ideas, passion and persistence,” said Ahmad Ashkar, founder and CEO of the Hult Global Case Challenge. “Poverty is unacceptable, especially today, with the knowledge, resources and creativity we possess,” he said. “We had the opportunity to create shift in the way business students look at social issues at the bottom of pyramid,” said Ashkar. “What we’ve created is the largest student movement for social good.”

The million-dollar contribution by Hult will be made to get these ideas off the ground and into the marketplace and each solution has scalability taken into consideration by judges, said Ashkar.

The case studies aimed at bringing more solar energy to Africa, equipping 20 million children in developing countries with laptops within the next five years, using the OLPC model, and creating sustainable housing for one million people based on the Habitat model.

Among the proposals presented Thursday night included leveraging mobile technology to bring mobile banking solutions for those at the bottom of the financial pyramid in Africa, enabling them to buy solar lamps, with a goal of eliminating kerosene lighting on the continent by 2020. Those living hand to mouth have no access to financial services, so coming up with the funds – particularly the high upfront payments for solar – is just not an option. So access to finance is their single biggest obstacle.

Semifinalists announced Thursday night were (winners indicated by *):

Energy

• New York University-Abu Dhabi*

• European Institute of Innovation & Technology Education

• Carnegie Mellon University*

• Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences

Housing

• Hult International Business School-Boston*

• University of California-Berkeley

“Human creativity is not going to submit to the problems we face in the world. Human creativity is just unlimited,” said Yunus. “That spirit of innovation, if we can direct it to solve the problems we see around us, I don’t think any of these problems can survive very long.

“The reason they survive, flourish and expand is because we’re not directing our creative power, our capacity, and technology to solve those problems.

That’s where the disconnect is,” said Yunus.

Grameen Bank lends $1 billion through many, tiny loans to help people but not necessarily to make money. Founded in Bangladesh, Grameen now has 2,600 self-sustaining branches with a repayment rate of better than 99 percent. It launched its U.S. program four years ago but struggled to get a bank to accept saving $2 per week. “We had to move heaven and earth to make that happen,” Yunus said, even addressing the board of directors of a bank before it was accepted, and even that was difficult for branches to accept the decision. Four years later, its borrowers have more than $1 million in savings, all women, with an average startup loan of $1,500.

“You’d be amazed how desperate and eager people are to take that $1,500 loan,” Yunus said. Other cities are coming forward, with Grameen launching in Omaha, Indianapolis and San Francisco in recent years, with another on the way in Detroit.

Repayment at all of Grameen branches is 99.3 percent, according to Yunus. “This is how strange things happen; things that we don’t think about, or think is impossible, become so easy and possible,” he said.

“If we’ve used selfishness to build a business, why can’t we use selflessness to build a business,” said Yunus.

Since the financial meltdown, Clinton said there’s been a focus on poverty and the distribution of wealth. Everyone should care about poverty because in today’s interdependent world, everyone will share the future. The only question, he said, is how it will be shared. “Will it be shared responsibility of community or a future of grab what you can and don’t care much whether there’s much prosperity beyond your reach, and no one wants to assume responsibility for others’ challenges. That won’t be a pretty future,” said Clinton.

“The only sensible course for the future is to create a future of shared opportunities and responsibilities,” he said. “That fundamentally is the process by which you’ve been engaged,” Clinton told participants. The former president pointed to Yunus as an example of someone who knew potential of poor people. “He knew poor people were trustworthy, hardworking and talented, and if you loaned them money, they were old- school: they’d pay you back.

“If you built a fortune at bottom of pyramid, you can virtually do without a government for a few years,” said Clinton, as Bangladesh plugged along at 6 percent growth because of the “ingenuity and entrepreneurial skills of poor people who were determined not to be poor,” he said.

Clinton urged participants, whether they won or not, to see if they can get more of their initiatives implemented, pledging to challenge other Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) partners to fund them. “To those who didn’t win, you did win; it’s almost impossible to pick the best proposal. The real test of the best proposal really can’t be applied at this time: whether it works or not. The real test is if we can implement them all.”