The team was crestfallen. The four students — from the U.S., Kenya, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo — had just pitched their idea for a social enterprise startup that fell flat. Competing against five other teams at Earlham College, a private liberal arts school in Indiana, the team had proposed outfitting buses in Kenya as mobile hot spots, complete with tablets loaded with educational apps for the children taking public transportation.
But the idea — floated last November at the campus-level contest for the Hult Prize, which challenges student entrepreneurs to find solutions for the world’s most pressing problems — wasn’t all that scalable. If new buses had to be purchased, it would be too expensive to implement and only add to a severe congestion problem on city streets.
“It was very disappointing,” recalls Iman Cooper, 23, the only American-born member of the group, who graduated from Earlham last December. “We really believed in the idea. We thought it was a great business concept that would have a lot of impact. We were surprised we lost and were scratching our heads.”
A MILLION-DOLLAR PRIZE FOR THE ‘UBER OF BUSES’
But after investing more than a month of work in the presentation, the team decided to pivot, coming up with an alternative idea and pitching it directly in the open competition round for the Hult Prize. The concept they ultimately developed — dubbed Magic Bus Ticketing — is an app based on text messaging that helps to make more efficient the byzantine minibus system most Africans depend on for daily transporation. In Kenya, people can lose up to two hours a day waiting for a bus, and up to 40% of their daily earnings for a round-trip ride.
The Earlham undergraduate team brought that startup plan to a Boston regional competition for the Hult Prize, won against some 80 teams in March, and then made their way to the finals in New York City last month. Hult International Business School President Stephen Hodges describes the contest as “the Super Bowl, Shark Tank, and American Idol all rolled into one.”
At the event, held at the Global Clinton Initiative annual meeting in New York, the group beat four other regional winners to win the $1 million prize from President Bill Clinton. “The transportation system is plagued with inefficiency,” Clinton said as he awarded the prize. “Soon, some big wig will be calling this the ‘Uber of buses.’”
FROM DEFEAT TO TRIUMPH IN TEN SHORT MONTHS
In the space of 10 months, the Magic Bus team embarked on an emotional roller coaster ride from the absolute bottom to the estatic top. “It was exhilarating and it was surreal,” recalls Cooper. “After a year of working on this project, it’s amazing that it is actually going to be put to use. And to be given the award by President Clinton was exciting in itself. How often does anyone get awarded a million from Bill Clinton?”
Indeed. The story of how these four students captured the ultimate social enterprise prize is one of disappointment, hard work, resilience, and victory. It includes their efforts to crowdfund a pilot that included traveling to Nairobi for a nine-week market test of their idea, an eight-week stint in an accelerator in Boston to refine and perfect the business plan, countless rehearsals of their presentation, and the moment they stepped on stage to receive the million-dollar award from a former President of the United States.
Now, the hardest work of all begins: Implementing the idea first in Kenya and then spreading it to other nations in Africa. The team doesn’t get the $1 million outright. Like funding from a venture capitalist fund, the group has to meet certain targets and objectives to gain full access to the prize. For a group of four students, the oldest being 23, even the idea of having $1 million to pursue a dream is something they never could have ever imagined.
HOPING TO WAIT OUT THE GREAT RECESSION IN AN MBA PROGRAM
The origins of the prize can be traced to Ahmad Ashkar, the son of Palestinian immigrants, who had been working Zayan Finance, a New York-based firm specializing in placing alternative debt on U.S.-based commercial real estate assets. Ashkar, then 24, was working between New York and the Middle East for Zayan when the Great Recession hit. “The world was collapsing,” he recalls. “I woke up one morning and witnessed my entire sales team disappear: 50 people were let go over night.”
He thought he would wait out the recession by enrolling in 2009 in the MBA program at Hult International Business School after which he planned to return to finance. But during a classroom lecture on Hult’s Boston campus by Charles Kane, then president of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit, a light bulb went off.
“I knew nothing about the social sector then, but I was inspired by what Kane said,” recalls Ashkar. “I got excited about selling a product to the poor. I had never considered a company that sold products to the poor. But I realized there was a market segment out there that was more than capable of paying for products and services and in fact enjoyed it more than getting a handout.”
BUMPING INTO HULT PRESIDENT STEPHEN HODGES IN THE MEN’S ROOM
His initial thought was to use the school to launch a global case challenge that would encourage students worldwide to create social enterprises that would fulfill the mission of One Laptop Per Child. “We all realized our brand wasn’t strong. We didn’t go to Hult because it had pedigree. We knew we would be going to school with people who would be looking for something better. We came together because we knew we would meet like-minded individuals at Hult who were crazy enough to pick Hult in the first place. We came together as a class and self-funded the program, spending over $100,000 on it.”
He and a team of students reached out through the Hult network, putting out a call to action. Though they had no prize money to offer, the contest attracted 300 participants from 70 universities with regional faceoffs in Boston, Dubai, and London.
A week before the event, Ashkar bumped into Hult President Stephen Hodges in the fifth floor restroom. “I saw him walk in and I went to him like a laser,” remembers Ashkar. “The reaction was mixed. It was, ‘I can’t believe you pulled it off’ to ‘This could be a pivotal moment. We either get behind you or some how stop this from happening.’ He decided to stay and ended up attending the event and witnessed the passion an drive of these business students.”