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Ahmad Ashkar

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From "Too Big to Solve" to "Too Big to Fail"

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 8:37 am

Shifting the perspective from "Too big to solve" to "Too big to fail" -- what traditional non-profits and NGOs can learn from business students who are at the forefront of social change. Can the next generation of global social entrepreneurs create radical innovation breakthroughs that actually solve social issues?

How can we solve the world's toughest social challenges without the sincere belief that a wide-scale solution exists? Thousands of charities and NGOs operate all of over the world, but most do not truly consider that they are working towards the complete eradication of the social issue they tackle. A large majority of these organizations operate under a business model that simply deploys donations, with no real effective method of creating systematic change through the reinvestment of those funds. No business could ever be sustainable operating under such a premise, so how can we expect traditional charities and non-profits to be effective. My answer to this quarrel -- The Hult Global Case Challenge. An annual $1M Poverty Challenge, with the goal of identifying and launching the most compelling student-generated solutions to the crippling issues faced by billions in need at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The Hult Global Case Challenge has grown to be a benchmark competition for social entrepreneurship, mobilizing thousands of college and university students each year. Teams of five, representing nearly 300 higher education institutions from over 130 countries, compete across five international cities of competition and online to develop breakthrough solutions. We mandate our participants to develop solutions that move away from the use of traditional approaches to social issues and towards the development of business models that are not only sustainable, but also scalable.

I started the Hult Global Case Challenge three years ago while completing my MBA at the Hult International Business School. I thought business students possessed the business execution expertise that most traditional charities often lack. I quickly moved to issue a call to action to my peers worldwide, who would be tasked to develop solutions that took the best business practices from the private sector and apply them to the world's most pressing social issues. My thought was that we needed to truly believe that eradicating these problems was possible, but realized that we needed to develop thoughtful and financially stable ideas in order to do this. It was a response to the cliché' "too big to fail," a term that became common in the recent U.S. financial crisis. Ironically, most charities have the attitude that social problems are simply "to big to solve." I wanted to challenge this concept because I saw that the private sector had taken the complete opposite viewpoint. I realized that the gap in thinking between traditional social services and the private sector was far too wide as is, and that we needed a youth movement to serve as a catalyst for the shift in thinking that organically fills this gap.

Through leveraging the hearts and minds of the next generation of global leaders, we have the ability to generate breakthrough ideas and concepts that are not limited by pre-existing boundaries. Young and fresh ideas, from students who were not jaded by what others have dubbed impossible and certainly not restrained by the "too big to solve" mindset. Business students in particular have the ability to think of solutions that leverage the use of commercial capital to drive catalytic approaches to social issues. This is the basis for social entrepreneurship and social innovation, and the grounds by which we run our annual challenge.

Since our inception three years ago, we have mobilized tens of thousands of students in what has become the world's largest crowdsourcing platform for social good. We have created the world-cup of student competitions, which is unlike any other on the planet as MBA students compete to develop solutions to issues in which they may have previously had no exposure to. Through our platform, we are able to tap into business minded students, who traditionally would have never considered a career in "conventional" social work. After spending roughly three months entrenched within the challenge of developing solutions to critical social issues, these students become intimate with the sector. By competing, students gain an experience which is invaluable and by the time they finish, they become hooked to the notion of developing business that can both be profitable and help the impoverish.

Since the start of our initiative, we have had four major accomplishments.

  1. Creating a shift in the way MBA students look at social issues

  2. If you want to start a global shift in the way our society approaches social challenges, I cannot think of a better market to target than MBA students. This young and dynamic class of innovators are the future leaders of the public, private and government sector. While MBA students are generally thought of as future investment bankers and management consultants, we are challenging the status quo by introducing them to the world of social entrepreneurship. Nearly every top MBA program from Harvard to HKUST actively participates in our call to action. I believe we are safe to assume that on a majority, these students will take up positions of major global influence before the end of this decade.

  3. We are creating the network of networks for budding social entrepreneurs, which includes: the Clinton organizations, participating students and their respective institutions, executive-level judges, government officials, decorated social entrepreneurs and the Hult Global Case Challenge team.

  4. How many other organizations can offer a network that includes nearly every top academic institution, thousands of the brightest students from over 130 countries, Nobel Prize winners, leaders of the private, government and public sector? This year alone we have brought together President Bill Clinton, Muhammad Yunus, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, co-founder of One Laptop per Child, CEOs of Habitat for Humanity and One Laptop per Child, Unilever's Chairman, Michael Treschow, social entrepreneur of the year Darrell Hammond and hundreds of other global executives. They all have the common objective to help foster the ideas and thinking of college and university students from around the world who are dedicated to solving the world's toughest social challenges. I don't use the word 'solving' lightly, as we literally challenge students to merge business and service delivery models that lead to tipping points in the market. Even more so, that they push their ideas to END the particular social challenge.

  5. We are having real impact and go beyond a simple awareness campaign

  6. Our event is anything but an academic exercise. Our event does more than just raise the flag towards a specific social issue. Each year, we provide US$1 Million in seed capital to move winning ideas to market pilots. Last year, we funded the winning concept which came out of the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. With our seed capital and their brilliant ideas, they developed a social enterprise named mPaani -- an organization that works with telecom operators to create incentive schemes, which allow the operator to maintain a first-mover advantage at the bottom of the pyramid. Through an innovative rebate program, communities that sign up can capitalize on a collective pool of funds that are used to build and maintain access points to clean water. Our pilot event winners in 2010 from Carnegie Mellon, helped set the pace for One Laptop per Child's new micro-commerce platform that enables the laptops to be used for more than just education.

  7. We are re-shaping the way NGOs and non-profits think about their own work

  8. Each year, we select NGO partners who have made commitments into the Clinton Global Initiative. We bring on partners who we believe are at the forefront of new approaches to tackling the specific social challenge we select as our annual theme. These partners play a major role in helping us frame an appropriate case study and challenge question that we, in turn, deliver to the global participant pool to allow them to take a deep dive into understanding the customers that the NGO seeks to serve. We challenge the way they think about their own businesses and help them understand the power of the masses. This allows the NGO to develop methods to better service their objectives through the new and innovative approaches. The concept of new, innovative and disruptive approaches to their business is well taken to, as seen in the deployment of Water.org's new multi-million dollar innovation fund. Interestingly enough, Water.org was our selected partner in our 2011 campaign.


More and more initiatives like ours are getting off the ground. Since launching three years ago, both MIT and Harvard have launched similar challenges. Their call to action: encouraging their own communities to get involved and think catalytically about social challenges. We hope our movement can be the spark that breaks the cycle of flowing status quo, which currently exists in the space. Through utilizing the masses and challenging them to think creatively about social enterprise, we hope to tip the market into a new generation of sustainable solutions that move us one step closer to alleviating the social challenges that cripple our world.

 

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