The time was Saturday, March 2, 3:25 p.m., and the local Hult International Business School team was worried. The MIT squad had already received $40,000 in funding, and there was a star team from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Two doors down they'd seen the Stanford group rehearsing like old pros with printouts of their slides posted on a wall.
"I kept saying we're up against Stanford in our heat," said Hult team member and MBA candidate, Mandy Vidalis. "That was intimidating."
But this business school version of a TV reality show had a real objective with a high social purpose -- to inspire young business brains to dream up innovations for a challenge posed by President Bill Clinton -- The Global Food Crisis.
The Hult Prize, sponsored by the international university of the same name, with its five interconnected campuses -- Shanghai, Dubai, London, Boston and San Francisco -- and drawing nearly 250 teams worldwide this past weekend on four continents boasts more than the backing of a former U.S. President.
In San Francisco, Mandy Vidalis and her Hult teammates -- and polished teams from Cal Berkeley, Stanford, MIT and 42 other universities -- were hoping to win a chance to earn a cool million in cash to seed their proposed venture.
At 3:25 p.m., Saturday, the Hult team entered the classroom at 1355 Sansome before the stone-faced judges drawn from elite corporations and consultancies, and saw they'd blundered. The clock was already ticking, and they knew they'd struggle with the 12-minute time limit. Niketa Malhotra led off, then handed the reins to Mandy Vidalis, hit by a nasty cold from late nights practicing. "Mandy had it dialed in," said teammate, Karl Oskar Teien, "but she started to lose her voice." As each member played their role before judges from GE, Cisco and other prestigious companies, the tension rose. One judge didn't crack a single smile. "We were rushed," said teammate Saul Minkoff. "We felt we didn't have enough time."
Welcome to the brutal world of business plan competitions. It's not about co-eds hoping to win the affections of the Bachelor. It's about late nights sketching out business models on sandwich wrappers, pizza boxes, newspapers and white boards. It's about assembling a diverse yet compatible team, with varied backgrounds and skills, securing a dedicated coach, juggling a demanding business school schedule and a lengthy international competition. It's about being willing to toss out everything you've worked on at the last minute and start from scratch.
The stakes are high. Akanksha Hazari first developed her mobile-based loyalty programs for underserved communities with a project called m.Paani. She won the Hult prize in 2011 and is today recognized as one of India's top 10 social entrepreneurs
Last fall, Team Hult started to come together as the far-flung students arrived in San Francisco. The Sansome street campus of nearly 600 students, led by San Francisco native Dean Larry Louie, boasts students from over ninety nations, with a student body of just 51 Americans. Norwegian born Karl Oskar Teien rented a crash pad out by Ocean Beach (yes, he surfs) with MBA candidate Saul Minkoff of Vancouver that soon became a makeshift project headquarters.
Three talented female classmates quickly joined the team -- Mandy Vidalis of South Africa, another classmate, and Niketa Malhotra, of Pune, India, a birthplace that would later prove significant. Perhaps equally importantly, they secured round-the-clock mentoring and coaching from their professor, Mike Grandinetti, a serial entrepreneur, veteran mentor and Hult's global discipline lead for entrepreneurship and innovation. Grandinetti pushed for skill diversity -- though two members were earning traditional MBA's, three would be MSE's, literally a new degree offered by Hult -- Master of Social Entrepreneurship.
Merely to qualify to enter the Hult Prize you have to be tops at your business school. Last fall, Team Hult had to beat thirty Hult San Francisco teams to be the campuses' lone entry in the international contest. FarmStart was the team's promising concept, a social franchise planned for rural Africa to educate the next generation to become highly productive farmers. But in January, when the case study for the Hult Prize was announced, they realized they'd need a concept focused on urban cities and slums to tackle the Global Food Crisis challenge.
They had another hurdle. One classmate had not jelled with the squad. Fortunately, Karl knew the man to take the open spot, and Grandinetti agreed with the move. They'd wanted Charles Ojei before, but back in the fall he'd been snapped up by a competing Hult team that had since lost to them. Charles had the deep practical business and consumer experience they wanted, a veteran of P&G, DuPont and GE from Lagos, Nigeria.
As the March 2 deadline approached, the team met often at Grandinetti's nearby Club Quarters hotel. "They availed themselves of the caffeine, nachos and snacks," said Grandinetti. "It was a great place to meet."
Three weeks before the contest Karl read an article in The Economist that discussed how the urban poor were often saddled with debt, spending money they didn't have. The problem with savings was that it was passive, just an accumulation of decisions not to consume.
He texted Saul: "Get out of class, right now," he wrote. "I've got it!"
They hashed out the rough idea with the whole team -- selling active savings programs for food, linked to your mobile phone. Essentially taking leftover change from food purchases and saving it toward more food purchases. They pitched their economics professor, Dr. David Green. The normally critical professor began rubbing his hands and said, "Congratulations, I think you have a great idea!"
But a few days later Grandinetti told them they'd lost their way. "They were becoming a bank. There was nothing about the core bond between mother and child. In these marginalized communities they are the ones trying to get the child fed."
The team's spirits sank. "We were demotivated," said Mandy. At first, said Saul, they "tried to add a bunch of things." But as it grew unwieldy, they pulled back.
"We broke it down and made it simple," said Karl. "The word that kept coming up is safety net." Added Charles: "They have a mobile phone number. It's impulse. It's the opportunity to capture all these little coinages."
Pulse became the project name -- an active savings program linked to SMS messages. Wednesday night before the Saturday contest, "they clocked in at 22 minutes," said Grandinetti. "They rambled." By Thursday night they clocked 12 minutes. Grandinetti urged them to get quotes and testimony to the validity of their concept.
Saturday night the team sat together in a big white tent in Levi's Plaza with 200-plus other contests awaiting word of the four semifinalists. I happened to be sitting behind them, having the good fortune of having taught Charles, Niketa and Karl in my social innovation and storytelling classes at Hult. Suddenly they were leaping up and down, and heading up to the stage.
They had made the Final Four -- sudden death. Stanford hadn't made it through. They were up against the Schulich School of Business (York University), Warwick Business School (Coventry) and MIT.
Niketa, dressed in her traditional Indian sari, told a moving story of life in the slums through the eyes of Asha, a girl she knew from Pune, India, and how a safe and regular savings deposit system could change her life by providing a buffer of savings ensuring food security. Mandy found her voice and deftly detailed the workings of the mobile money savings program. Saul scaled Pulse, explaining the momentum of their budding corporate partnerships, and team diversity (five nations and 14 languages between them), and how their motivation would fuel the project.
Then the judges fired questions. Karl answered clearly and firmly, but one judge was troubled that the business model would charge customers one percent for the savings program. Karl said it is not uncommon for urban poor to pay money guards to hold onto their savings. Then, Charles, the newcomer, coolly noted that income from advertising and valuable data would soon allow them to be flexible about that fee.
The judges deliberated for half an hour. Forty five teams would lose.
The cry went up again. Miraculously Team Hult had beaten all these talented squads. "This is remarkable," said Grandinetti. "They beat Cal Berkeley, John Hopkins, NYU, MIT."
The prize? This isn't The Bachelor -- they get to spend a steaming summer with the four other regional winners (and one on-line winner) at the Hult Accelerator in Boston. "It's a very competitive final process," said Grandinetti. They'll continue to work and validate the idea. "They'll spend insane amounts of time between now and when they present to President Clinton."
Next stop, New York, September 23-26, the Clinton Global Initiative. For Karl Oskar Teien, Niketa Malhotra, Saul Minkoff, Mandy Vidalis, and Charles Ojei, it's more than a reality show.
They've got a one in six chance to win a million bucks, and maybe, just maybe make a difference.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the Ten Faces of Innovation and founder of Snowball Narrative.