Eyes on the prize: Ahmad Ashkar

The Hult Prize has become one of the most important competitions for young, socially-aware business minds. We speak with founder and CEO Ahmad Ashkar

If you’ve followed social entrepreneurship news even slightly in the past few years, you won’t have failed to witness the unstoppable rise of the Hult Prize.

The annual competition, which pits students from around the world against each other in a bid to solve the planet’s biggest challenges with innovative start-up ideas, has become one of, if not the, most prominent business competitions on earth.

Thousands of young entrepreneurs sign up to the contest each year to find answers to a challenge set by former US President Bill Clinton, with the promise of $1 million in seed funding to help the winner turn their idea into reality.

With ‘social’ and ‘sustainable’ two core principles, the Hult Prize Foundation has become one of the most talked about organisations globally, not just by budding business people, but by world leaders, influential thinkers, and celebrities. Indeed, it was named by Time Magazine as one of the “top five ideas that are changing the world for the better” in a 2012 article.

And having launched in 2010, things are just getting started. As well as the competition growing each year, the Foundation has launched the Hult Prize Accelerator, providing continued support, mentorship and advice for winning teams to help them move forward with the implementation of their start-up.

Most importantly, however, the Prize is bringing genuine and long-lasting change to some of the poorest people in the world - not through charity, not through philanthropy, but through business, generating sustainability through profit-making business models designed to bring social and financial impact.

Last year’s winner, Nanohealth, specialises in chronic disease management, providing holistic services at affordable price to slum-dwellers at their doorstep.

While 2013’s winner, Aspire, aims to improve access to edible insects worldwide by developing and distributing affordable and sustainable insect farming technologies for countries with a history of insect consumption.

Given the scale of the Prize and the Foundation, as well as the calibre of its advocates - not just Clinton but also founder of Grameen Bank Muhammad Yunus, and others - you would be forgiven for thinking that it had been devised, built and launched by, perhaps, a government office. Maybe even a groups of high-profile corporations looking to boost their CSR.

In fact, the entire thing was the brainchild of one man. Ahmad Ashkar.

Sitting down with Ashkar, it doesn’t take long to understand how he managed to turn the dream into reality. His energy is infectious.

In fact, we meet in the afternoon of a typically busy day, just after he’s had lunch with one of the Prize’s previous winners, and just before a television interview - all of which he appears to take in his stride.

“I think my career has taken an unordinary path which has led to extraordinary results,” he begins, as we launch into his journey.

Palestinian-born, but growing up in Kansas City from the age of eight after living around the Middle East, he recalls that his formative years were defined by themes that would shape him forever.

“I became fully assimilated into US culture, which led me to the ‘outsider looking in’ perspective as a youngster,” he says.

“In Kansas they don’t care much for Middle Eastern football … and by the time I got to high school I was forced to play what everybody else played, which was American football. I had never played before, but I took the obstacles and turned them into opportunities.”

Becoming the Kansas player of the year in his senior year meant that Ashkar earned a full scholarship to university - something he calls a “game changer” - and after graduation he took an internship with a French investment bank, having long wanted to join the finance sector.

A year into his first job, he made the first big step along the path towards launching the Hult Prize.

He says: “I got to know a group CEO at a mixer event in New York for Muslim professionals in banking. This was the first time I got the taste for leaving a legacy and going down the unbeaten path.

“He said to me “have you heard of Islamic banking?” and I said no. He said “do you want to make history?” And it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. His proposition was that we establish the first Islamic bank in the US, so I spent the next couple of years doing that, leading the investment sales team and launching a brand new comp and into a brand new market in the US, which is now the largest player in the US in the Islamic finance space.

“And then I had a heart to heart with the CEO, who told me I’d hit a ceiling … so I joined a real estate investment bank, where I was again the number one investment sales guy. But I missed the impact.

“I hooked up with one of the original guys from my first job building the Islamic finance company, and we built what became a conduit, bridging capital between Dubai and the Middle East and New York.”

When the economic crisis struck. Ashkar’s partners decided to move the business to Saudi Arabia, but he declined the opportunity to travel with them.

“I said I don’t think I’m ready to make the move. I thought there had to be something more. So I decided to go back to business school.”

On the advice of one of his mentors, he enrolled at Hult International Business School in Dubai.

“It was there that I had my breakthrough moment for the Hult Prize,” he says.

“And it was kind of an accident.

During the first couple of weeks at his new school, Ashkar became the president of the consulting club. Initially he had planned to join the banking club, but due to the crash, and the blame attributed to the world’s bankers, that particular society was severely undersubscribed, not to mention under a cloud.

“Of course, I knew nothing about consulting,” he admits. “So like any good leader I thought I’d poll the club members to find out what they wanted.

“They wanted to do one of four things. 1) Get a job in consulting. 2) Meet people who had jobs in consulting. 3) Get training so they could work on micro-projects. And the fourth one was something I had never heard of before.

“It was the idea of competing in business school competitions which aim to solve banking problems, business problems, consulting problems, and so on.”

Being a relatively new school, and having no track record in such competitions, they faced a barrier to entry. So Ashkar decided to start Hult’s own challenge.

“The main question was ‘what is the topic going to be?’” he remembers.

“Lo and behold, two weeks later I’m sitting in a class and the topic was something around social business marketing.

“The guest lecturer’s name was Chuck Kane. He was the CEO of a company called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which was the first real social enterprise in the world that thought of solving the world’s education challenges through the development of a product.

“This CEO had just come off of an $800 million company that he sold, and thought he could use some of his business expertise to lead this new kind of company into the future.

“He was telling this story of a deployment of OLPC in a small village outside of Rwanda. And one of my classmates, Nicole, raised her hand and said “great speech - sorry to tell you that you’re a bit mistaken in your facts”.

“He was shocked. He said “how to you know this?” and she said “I grew up in the village next door, I know the deployment and I remember the impact it had on my community.

“Chuck paused and said “this is the first time I’ve ever had a student, a business student, who had real time exposure to the business challenges that we had as an organisation.” And the recommendations Nicole gave him were life changing.

“He said “based on this feedback, I’m going to be able to do a 10-X job in delivering this kind of social mission, but doing it sustainably,” because they are selling products.”

Ashkar then recalls two quotes by Kane which would change his own life.

“Chuck said the first of two lines which led to the whole breakthrough of the prize. He said “If I had more business people that had on-the-ground experience with the social issues we had to take on, but looking at it with a business lens, then we would be able to solve this primary school education challenge”.

“I kind of had an a-ha moment in saying I’ve got boots on the ground, I’m the global president of this organisation that has campuses in Shanghai, Boston, London, and Dubai, and I’ve got this entire network at my disposal.

“Then Chuck said “the issue we have in this sector is that all the solutions that are coming at us are coming from people who don’t have business backgrounds”.

“So I got with Chuck afterwards and said “what if I could bring you thousands of business students to help solve commercially through start-ups this issue to help you distribute? You make these computers, what you don’t have is for-profit distribution companies”.

“So we launched the inaugural competition.”

Unfunded at the time, Ashkar was driven by the belief that as well as doing good for the world’s poorest people, it represented a good business opportunity.

“There’s a trillion dollar market with these folks who are making $2-5 a day, and no business people are tapping into it,” he says.

“I got inspired to take action not just because I was socially motivated, but I saw low-hanging fruit in the commercial opportunities in servicing the poor. Rather than thinking of social entrepreneurship, I looked at it as entrepreneurship targeting social, which is a distinct difference.

“For the next three nights I wasn’t able to sleep. I was up all night thinking about this concept. Why are people making $2-5 a day paying 50 percent interest loans for toilets? Why are they paying two to three times what we in the West pay for basic rights of education, sanitation, water, and housing? These things in the urban slum cost more money, which didn’t make any sense to me.”

So Ashkar set out on his mission to encourage as many young business minds as possible to think about these challenges on a worldwide scale.

The first event launched in 2010 with the Dubai Government as anchor sponsor, and funding from TECOM, but in the meantime Ashkar had accepted a job with HSBC which he was due to start in a matter of weeks, shortly after the end of his MBA course.

Fate, however, intervened in the shape of one of the world’s richest men.

Ashkar recalls: “I’m literally a month away from graduation, I’ve got this great business which is leveraging crowd and disrupting open innovation to generate ideas, and I was going to do this on the side while taking this job at HSBC.

“Then, out of the blue, I get a call from somebody in Bertil Hult’s office.”

Bertil Hult, the Swedish entrepreneur and businessman who is worth an estimated $5 billion, founded educational and language school company EF Education First in 1965. Now semi-retired, he is the benefactor of Hult Business School.

“He had found out about me because as he was building and growing his business school, one of the consultant professors he had hired to give him feedback on the market had brought him an article about the inaugural prize,” explains Ashkar.

“So I get the phone call, which went something like ‘Bertil Hult has heard about your initiative and he wants to meet you - pack three days’ worth of clothes and head to the airport tonight.

“So I show up in Lucerne, Switzerland, where Bertil Hult lives, and we spend the next few days talking about the Middle East, politics, having dinners, lunches, and I’m thinking to myself, what does this guy want with me?

“On the last night before I was heading out we had dinner, and Bertil talks to me. He said “look, I’m impressed – I didn’t realise business students cared”. And I said it’s more than just caring. I said “the future of development is business, but the future of business is also development” that there was this huge trillion dollar market that was being ignored. 

“The urban slum dwellers are unable to break poverty because they are so poor, but there’s still some income. There are about 1.5 billion of these people in the world, and they’re working on an informal cash economy. They spend all their money because of the hopelessness they have. So if you calculate $2-5 a day conservatively among 1.5 billion people - imagine. That’s $3 billion a day that’s nobody’s capturing. And by capturing it, we create commercial enterprises which create competition, which ultimately will bring prices down.

“Why aren’t we thinking about charity in a business sense where the more we produce the cheaper things get? So that eventually you begin turning profit because you go from a dollar to 99 cents to 50 cents to one cent to zero cents, and then a profit. 

“So I explain these ideas to Bertil Hult and he said to me “what were you missing this year?’” And I said “honestly, seed money.” He said to me “how much seed money would you want?” And being bold and audacious I said “$1 million would be nice”. 

“He looks over at his CFO and his CFO kind of gives him a nod, and he said “done”. And I was in shock.”

Ashkar not only received the $1 million prize money, but also negotiated funding for the prize, and an endowment structure. Yet despite all this he still intended to take his job in banking.

Until Hult stepped in again.

“He told me this deal was contingent on one things. He said that I had to lead the organisation. So I told him I had to think about it. 

“I went home, talked to one of my mentors, talked to my family, my wife, and I said ‘are you ready to roll the dice with me, because I think this is something that could change the world’.

“I also called my boss at HSBC who had offered the job, who is still a close friend and dear mentor to me, and he told me “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and I agreed.

“So I called Bertil back and I said I would do it, and he said “under one more condition – we rename it Hult Challenge” and I said “I’ll do you one up, let’s call it the Hult Prize, and I promise you I’ll create for you the Nobel Prize of the millennial generation”.

“We launched that next year’s Hult Prize, and the following year Mohammad Yunus actually called the Hult Prize the Nobel Prize for businesses.”

With the allegorical keys to the city, Ashkar set about building the Prize with his small team.

Deciding that they needed somebody “very important and powerful” to champion their challenge, they wrote down four names of people they wanted to be the face of the Prize.

“The first name was Nelson Mandela. Second name, Mohammad Yunus. Third name, President Clinton. Fourth name, Bono.

“Eventually we circle Mohammad Yunus and President Clinton, and we all agreed it had to be Clinton. Within three days we had set up a meeting by conference call with one of his staff members.”

Ashkar, however, was determined for that conference call not to take place.

“I said no, we’re not taking this on the phone; we’re going to New York.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m not going to gamble over the phone. We travelled to New York on the plane, working out the slide deck, and I’m about to give the pitch of my life. 

“A 30 minute slot turned into two hours and at the end of the two hours I said “I want President Clinton, and I want him to announce it at your upcoming meeting”. She said “no way let’s talk about it for next year” and I said “there is no next year – I’m on a mission, I’ve got a pocket full of cash and I’m willing to travel wherever I need to”.

“She said to come back tomorrow, so I came back, we met with one of President Clinton’s chiefs of staff, and within 30 minutes we had a deal. President Clinton had agreed to set the challenge for the Hult Prize and announce a partnership.”

Three weeks later, Ashkar was escorted into the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) to launch the 2010-2011 Hult Prize Challenge, and a year later an impressed President Clinton hosted the final rounds of the Hult Prize in front of a 1,000 person audience at the CGI.

“We went from being something great to something that couldn’t be forgotten,” says Ashkar. 

“And things changed for us even more when we ran the 2012-13 challenge. Mohammed Ashour from McGill led his start-up Aspire Food Group to the $1 million prize, introducing a new protein alternative to the market which was insect based. 

“Part of their project includes reinventing chicken feed. And by doing so they were able to drive down the costs of protein by 70-80 percent. I knew then that if I can get an MBA from McGill that had no idea about this sector to not only get excited about it, but to create a company that the United Nations called ‘a company whose time has come that would likely solve the global food crisis worldwide’ then we were doing something special.”

The Prize’s founder explains that this was a moment of both humility and inspiration for him, and he put his efforts into improving the Prize and the Foundation’s engagement with the start-up ecosystem.

“We began as a mission-driven organisation to inspire and cultivate a culture by where business people make a first choice to go into the sector,” he says.

“We thought it would take us a lifetime. When I went to school in 2009 I had never heard of social entrepreneurship, and neither had any of my classmates. By 2013 there wasn’t an Ivy League school or FT Top 100 MBA programme that wasn’t competing in the Hult Prize. 

“We fulfilled a lifetime mission in literally three and a half years. But we knew that wasn’t enough. We were missing something. 

“So we put in a new framework for how we would now not only generate massive collaboration, but also step up our game and build the world’s most robust business incubator. 

“Now we actually had to launch companies. We needed to transition.”

The Hult Prize Accelerator was born, providing incubation and guidance with the help of a team of partners, offering help with mentorship, technology, training, impact metrics, and more.

Ashkar continued to attend numerous conferences and events to “sell the dream”, securing the commitment of the likes of Fadi Ghandour.

“We were defining what a social entrepreneur is,” he says.

“Is it somebody who just works to be a sustainable enterprise? Or is it somebody who actually generates profit and demonstrates what I call ‘capitalism with a cause’?

“That’s the point at which we said ‘the system is wrong’. We need to be capitalistic about it because that’s the way the world works. So we reinvented the platform to be able to launch companies.

“We’ve got so many applicants every year now. This year’s Prize got 20,000 applicants for our programme and platform. So there is a huge pool to choose from.

“And we can even reverse engineer the process to previous years’ winners. M.Paani, the winner in 2011, has since accelerated business to the point where it will do eight-figure revenues by 2016, servicing India’s poorest through the largest loyalty rewards programme targeting the urban poor.

“The founder [Akanksha Hazari] created a system which allows rebates and incentives to be used to purchase bus tickets, food rations, vitamins, healthcare, and so on.

“The business model is in the data. She’s collecting data and mapping the urban slum landscape in India. Why is that so critical? Because the 2014 winner, Nanohealth, used that data to launch their healthcare social enterprise which is doing diagnostics door to door at urban slum level so they can come up with a micro-insurance product and solution to service them.”

He describes the initiative as creating a “catalytic infrastructure” which allows businesses to build upon each other.

It’s a system that works, he says, and the proof is in the output.

“Hundreds of companies have launched as a result of the Hult Prize, and thousands more of the next generation of business leaders have been changed forever.

“There’s a moment of inspiration that these young people have, and every year I get more and more inspired to the point where I challenge myself and my team about where we’re going next. Where we’re going next is more challenges, more often, with more funding.

“We’re in year six now. We spent the first five years figuring things out and if you thought we’ve changed the world in years zero through five, just wait until you see what we do in years six through 10.”

Turning our attention to this year’s competition - based around sustainable early education - the regional rounds took place in March.

Team Attallo from the University of Toronto won in the Dubai final with its concept to bridge the ‘word gap’ - a lack of childhood vocabulary which can result in developmental issues for underprivileged children.

According to Ashkar, the quality of entries keeps getting stronger.

“Any one of the Dubai finalists was good enough to win the Hult Prize last year,” he says.

“In every region we had six finalists - that’s 30 teams in total. I would say 27 of them could have won last year’s Prize.”

In terms of education, the impact of the Prize and its ethos can now be seen at universities around the world.

“We’ve just launched our franchise programme where we have 200 universities around the world organising their own local Hult Prize events.”, explains Ashkar.

“As well as that, McGill university now has a class in their law school dedicated to social enterprise; Hult International Business School has launched a masters degree in social enterprise; and the university of Toronto’s president is changing the strategic core values of their university because of their school’s involvement in the Hult Prize.

“We’re giving universities ownership over our platform, making it open-source for the world. We believe that we’ve reached a tipping point where all we need to solve the world’s toughest social challenges are role models.

“And if the Hult Prize can create four in four years, how many more of these thousands that are participating can generate another game changing idea?”

The question may be hypothetical, but one thing is certain - Ashkar and the Hult Prize have paved the way for social entrepreneurship to be the norm, rather than the exception, among the world’s most innovative young business people’s minds.

No mean feat, whichever way you look at it.

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