By Neil Parmar
Sometimes the hardest part of winning a major business case contest happens after the best idea has been selected, a victor announced and the prize money delivered. For Akanksha Hazari, whose team won the Hult Prize last year while trying to do its part to solve the world’s clean water crisis, the process has included securing a telecom partner in Africa, piloting a project in and around Mumbai and starting up an independent social enterprise also based in Mumbai. On weekends, Hazari gets to visit with her husband, who must fly in to Mumbai from Hong Kong, where he works and resides.
“There are challenges in taking something that’s generated in a competition and translating that into the field,” says Hazari, who was completing her MBA at Cambridge University when she and her team entered the Hult Prize. Their winning concept and social enterprise, m.Paani, designs and implements mobile phone-based loyalty programs that help communities living at the bottom of the pyramid get the most out of their spend by connecting it to development rewards such as safe water, education, health care and energy products.
“Students who are really passionate about the experience beyond the competition and actually piloting their ideas should understand there will be challenges in the road, and it won’t always be a smooth journey,” Hazari adds. “You may enter thinking you’re just going to get work experience; I am starting a company.”
As the pool of business schools that host an annual case competition continues to increase, their students and other participants may be encountering more hurdles. Harvard and MIT, McGill University in Canada, Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, Hult International Business School and many others each boast their own kind of contest, while the inaugural UCLA Anderson TED Case Challenge was just held in May. Some schools hand out real-life business problems that students must attempt to solve in as little as a day. Others assemble prestigious executives from the private or non-profit sector who judge proposed solutions to social issues and award winners with anything from bragging rights up to $1 million to actually implement an idea that took months to formulate.
Yet some teams who try to shift from the confines of a classroom to the real world may find themselves waiting — and waiting — for bureaucratic-heavy partner organizations to launch a pilot program, if they ever do. Once-promising partnerships with outside companies that previously showed interest may also fall apart. And, for the winning team, sticking together beyond a photo-op on stage proves increasingly difficult as some members continue to pursue their education, whereas others must face the realities of rising tuition costs. “Post-business school, people have debt and they have to repay their loans,” says Hazari, who notes that just one of her teammates, Yutaro Kojima, still actively contributes to m.Paani.
Schools are trying to address some of these issues as they expand their case challenges year to year. In a news release, UCLA Anderson and TED, a non-profit known for trying to spread innovative ideas, have said that they “hope that the initial effort will evolve into a greater program across top graduate schools for translating innovative ideas into comprehensive campaigns and executable plans across the breadth of important issues that TED confronts.”
The way organizations become partners in the Hult Prize, which shared a $1 million prize with Habitat for Humanity, One Laptop per Child and SolarAid this year, has evolved since the contest launched three years ago. “We’re definitely learning,” Ahmad Ashkar, chief executive and founder of the challenge, says.
“In the past, the role of our partners was not so clearly defined,” he adds. “This year, moving into the event what we learned was we need to make sure we get these pilots off the ground. We need written agreements from the NGO partners that we bring on that they’re going to play the active role in getting these pilots out to market.”
While Ashkar says he believes all three pilots will launch this year, he is also designing an acceleration or incubation center, “where we will actually provide an entire infrastructure of mentors, advisers and people that are committed to getting these market pilots, not just out, but [their impact]accurately measured and, of course, documented and scaled.”
To help ensure m.Paani grows into a successful social enterprise Hazari has been relying on mentoring from individuals such as Chee Lau, the founder of Creative Park London who also provided advice during the Hult competition. She is also now in the process of finding new colleagues to take m.Paani to the next level, as her teammates who helped win the competition hold full-time jobs elsewhere around the world. “You enter the competition as a team, and that’s not necessarily the same team you’d start a company with,” Hazari says. “I went from conceptually working as a team on this, and now I’m starting to implement a new team for actual implementation.”
To learn more about m.Paani, and whether you might fit into its expanding team as it looks to hire new employees, visit http://mpaani.com.
Neil Parmar, the author of this article and an alumnus from New York University, was part of the team that won this year’s Hult Prize within the energy track. Madhav Vaidyanathan, Songyishu Yang, Muhammad Awais Islam and Ruey-Ting (Gary) Chien from NYU Abu Dhabi were the team’s other four members.
Read the full Huffington Post article.