Winning The $1 Million Hult Prize: The Ultimate Social Enterprise Challenge

The Magic Bus team in Kenya during its pilot In May & June of this year

The Magic Bus team in Kenya during its pilot In May & June of this year


The next year, the contest was dubbed the Hult Global Case Challenge and attracted the attention of The Harbus, the student newspaper at the Harvard Business School. A colleague of Bertil Hult, the Swedish entrepreneur whose family philanthropically supports the Hult School, brought the article to the billionaire. As Ashkar’s graduation from Hult neared, he received a phone call from Bertil Hult’s office with a request for a meeting. Ashkar, then ready to reenter investment banking with his MBA, was told to pack three days worth of clothes and fly to meet the then 69-year-old entrepreneur in Lucerne.

At first, Ashkar was not sure he wanted to make the trip. “My dad said, ‘You are an idiot. You never say no to meeting with a successful entrepreneur. You can’t turn him down.”

He showed up in Lucerne in August of 2010, met directly with Bertil Hult, and talked non-stop for two days. “We talked about my parents immigrating from Palestine and my experience at Hult and the impact of the financial recession,” remembers Ashkar. “It was only about an hour before the final meeting over dinner that I brought up the idea of the Hult Prize and what would be next.” He recalls the conversation going something like this:

“What do you need?,” asked Hult. “What are you missing?”

“We arranged for some funding but we really need is some seed capital,” replied Ashkar.

Hult asked the obvious question: “How much?”


Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult anted up the million-dollar prize

Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult anted up the million-dollar prize

Taken aback, Ashkar slighly hesitated. “I learned early in finance to always ask for ten times what you need so I said a million dollars. And to my amazement, Bertil Hult looked at his CFO (chief financial officer) in the meeting and asked how much it cost to sponsor the world sailing championships. Once he got the answer, he said, ‘We’ll do it.’

“Then I said you can’t just have a million dollar prize. You have to have money for operations and marketing. We got a commitment and Steve (Hodges) would have to come up with operating capital. We weren’t a foundation yet, just an initiative that needed a home. And I was a 25-year-old who needed a babysitter.”

There were two conditions to the million-dollar gift. The first was to name the context the Hult Prize and the second was that Ashkar would have to come aboard in a full capacity. “I was split and didn’t give them a decision on the spot,” he says. “I decided this was a once in a lifetime opportunity not for myself but for humanity. I was 25 and stilll thought I was a man filled with false pride and all that good stuff and thought this was a career ending move not to get back into finance in my prime. I took a risk and did it.”


Since then, the Hult Prize has become the world’s largest student competition for social good, partnering with the Clinton Global Initiative and culminating with a presentation to the winner by President Bill Clinton. Now in its seventh year, nearly 100,000 college students have participated in the contest from nearly every country in the world. Each year, Ashkar tosses out a challenging problem—education, clean water, energy, food, healthcare, and early child development—and invites students to come up with solutions.

This year’s challenge—to build a scalable social enterprise in a crowded urban space—saw nearly 250 teams from universities all over the world compete. In the mix were teams from Harvard Business School, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, INSEAD, HEC Paris, and the London School of Economics. There also were Ivy League teams Columbia, Cornell, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, the five regional winners from competitions in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai and Shanghai—were largely from lesser known schools, with the exception of a team from the University of Cambridge. There was BRAC University, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Hult International Business School, and the winning team from Earlham College. They all shared a single goal: To create, in the words of Ashkar, “for profit, impact center and market driven organizations” that solve big social problems.

“If you went to Harvard Business School or Harvard’s Kennedy School and compete, I love you to death but I don’t care if you don’t participate in the Hult Prize,” insists Ashkar, now CEO of the Hult Prize Foundation. “What I am trying to do is to take people who have no intention of going into this space and bring their know-how into this field. We don’t measure ourselves by how many billion dollar companies we helped to launch. It is to inspire others to create basic ideas. It’s the people behind those ideas who have changed the game.”


You would be hard pressed to find a more passionate group of young people than the four members of the Magic Bus team. Although they hail from four different countries, they share a couple of things in common: An entrepreneurial zeal and a passion for social causes. Cooper is the only American on the team, born in California and largely rasied in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. After attending the International School in Indiana, she chose to go to Earlham College because of the international diversity of the study body. Students at the liberal arts school hail from more than 70 countries and 11 languages are taught on campus.

“It was very natural to work with team members from all over the world,” she says. “I love working with international people.” Like her teammates, she also had a natural entrepreneurial bent. Her parents were entrepreneurs and she started her first business with her twin sister at the age of nine, making handmade women’s accessories from scarves and earrings to pins and cigar box purses. Cooper had tried to compete on campus for the Hult Prize a year earlier, but it didn’t work out because of the workload. Two members of the team had an edge: They were campus directors of the Hult Prize the year before.

“We were talking in the cafeteria and came to the point of view that transportation is a way to connect people to goods and services,” she recalls. “We started talking about the original idea and I gave them some feedback on things they could add and they thought it was valuable and asked me to be their fourth member. After losing on campus, we went back to the drawing board and got feedback from judges on why we loss.”

Their input served one purpose. It gave the team a broader sense of what other things could work, says Wyclife Omondi, 22, a Nairobi-born economics major at Earlham who will graduate at the end of this year. He knew first hand what it was like to wait for a minibus, called an matatu in Kenya. “I’ve lived this all my life,” he says. :When you see the amount of time people spend in this matatus waiting. First of all – it’s undignified. You think people could have spent much more time doing other productive things.”

But it wasn’t until the first failed idea that the team even got to thinking about the concept that actually won. Leslie Ossete, 21, who graduated in May with a degree in economics and business and non-profit management, had originally brought the team together. “When we lost, I thought there was something about our idea,” she recalls. “When you come with an idea, there are so many expectations. It had taken a lot of time and effort.”

Coming from the Congo, she had the same experience with minibuses as Omondi. The problem, she explains, is everyone’s in the dark on what the buses will be like on any given day. Riders have no idea when the buses are coming because the schedules are unpredictable. In Omondi’s hometown, people can lose up to two hours of their day waiting for a bus.

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