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Hult Prize Offers Hope For Social Entrepreneurs' Start-Ups

Six teams of business school entrepreneurs made it into the global 2014 Hult Prize final. But MBAs' social impact start-ups are finding success in failure.

Six years ago, Roberto Severino Campos had his first stroke – at the age of 46. It left him with paralysed legs. He suffered two more strokes four years later and lost the ability to speak. Roberto now depends entirely on his family to survive.

He lives in a shanty town slum on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, with his seven children and 16 grandchildren. His wife works long hours as a cleaner to earn money for their family. Their eldest son also helps front the bills. And much of the family's income is spent on the special diapers that Roberto needs.

“Fortunately his medication and check-ups are free, but sometimes we just don't have enough money for the bus to take us to the local medical centre,” Noemia, his 31-year-old daughter, explains.

Noemia carries him in and out of the house so he can take a breath of air from time to time. “We all wish we could get him a wheelchair to make his life a little easier,” she says.

Despite the fact that 80 per cent of cardiovascular disease is preventable, the costs associated with chronic diseases are often borne by families – and can deepen poverty for those who are already poor.

Roberto’s is just one of 44 million households that fall into poverty each year because of catastrophic healthcare costs. There are 250 million slum dwellers around the world suffering from chronic diseases.

And this is a key focus of the 2014 Hult Prize, the world’s largest student competition and start-up platform for social good, which is designed to act as a catalyst for social ventures that aim to solve the planet’s most pressing challenges.

“In order to stem this crisis and alleviate the burden on those working to survive on just a few dollars a day, we must offer prevention strategies, early diagnosis, and effective healthcare infrastructures in urban communities,” said former U.S President Bill Clinton, who is in partnership with the Hult Prize.

The competition’s numbers are big. The Hult Prize 2014 received 11,000 applications, many from the world’s top business schools, and 600 schools in total have been represented since the inaugural competition in 2009.

Two weeks ago, 1,200 entrepreneurs took part in the regional finals in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, Shanghai and Sao Paulo.

MBAs from across the globe were hoping their business ideas, which were kept a closely guarded secret, made the cut. “Although we are well prepared, I think you can never feel ready enough, no matter how much time you spend doing research and preparing for the presentation,” said Vincent Kott, a SAIF MBA student representing team Nudge in the competition.

Part of the appeal is the rising interest in social entrepreneurship and impact investing in the business school community. “Social entrepreneurship is very closely related to impact investing, since investors invest in social entrepreneurs,” said Vincent. “We are all very interested in social entrepreneurship and impact investing.”

Team TIBA, from Aston Business School, agree. “We all have a shared path and vision, and we really want to positively give back to our community,” said Esmer Chifiero, a Nigerian MBA student who previously worked for the United Nations Development Programme, which helps nations withstand crisis and drive and sustain growth that improves quality of life.

“More and more MBAs should be involved in social enterprise. There’s a need for us to address the situation and we can apply what we’ve learnt [on the MBA] and use the knowledge to solve social problems,” said Janet Bolo, a Kenyan MBA student who was part of Aston’s team.

Unfortunately, only six teams from six schools made it into the global finals, which will take place on September 22 in New York City. The regional winners of the Hult Prize 2014 are a step closer to launching a start-up enterprise for real – and a step closer to the $1 million cash prize in seed funding.

While there is only one winner, each regional champion will get to spend the summer inside of the Hult Prize Accelerator —an innovative incubator for social enterprise. They will also receive a one year membership into the CGI.

Competition is tough, but the challenge is what draws so many MBA students. Vincent agrees. “The topic is quite challenging and we had to break down the main problem and find an interesting and original idea,” he said.

“How can we treat and help these slum dwellers if they can’t afford our product or service? We found a clever way to provide a service for slum dwellers paid by an entity that will benefit from paying for our service.”

SAIF’s team were hoping that their unique team of two Chinese, two Canadian and one American MBA student would set them apart.

Aston’s team said that their diversity would also give them an edge. “All of us have first-hand experience in an international environment and that was a competitive advantage that we made shine through our application,” said Adiba Ali, a member of team TIBA.

While the teams from SAIF and Aston didn’t advance to the global finals, there are MBA students who find success in failure. Five students from ESADE Business School co-founded Origin, a social-impact start-up that helps improve nutrition and financial inclusion in some of the poorest parts of India.

The company was formed for their entry into last years’ Hult Prize. They didn’t win, but the project turned into a business, and the MBA students are preparing to run the business full-time after graduation.

“As we looked deeper into the issue, we starting defining who our customers would be and which geography we would target, and things progressed from there,” said co-founder Greg Perowne.

Cesar Del Valle, another Origin co-founder, said that they are now laying the groundwork to run the business full-time after the team graduate this year.

For six teams now, though, the game is still afoot. University of Pennsylvania students are developing a bubble gum for oral and tooth-care protection; MIT students have created The Wound Pump, to treat open wounds in slums from infections that lead to death; HEC Paris students have developed a solution for diabetes detection in urban slums.

Another group of ESADE students have developed pre-heart disease diagnosis and treatment through SlumEMR; students from the Indian School of Business are using innovative technology to create micro-insurance health networks for slum dwellers; York University students have created a diabetes screen which can be printed on an ordinary printer for .02 cents.

Social enterprises offer the best chance of innovation. “Social enterprises, which creatively combine the tools used by governments, NGOs and the private sector, offer some of the most promising opportunities for innovation in these areas,” said Bill Clinton.

However, even the teams that don’t win the global final can still achieve their potential. The Hult Prize is a springboard, not a requirement for social impact success.

MBAs will launch start-ups to tackle the world’s biggest problems – with or without a huge cash injection. 

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