By Alexandra Raphel, MPP ’14, Correspondent
Kennedy School student Varun Bhandari (MPA ‘14) is part of a team selected to represent Harvard University in the prestigious Hult Prize regional finals this March. The finalists were selected from over 10,000 applications from 150 countries and also include teams from Harvard Business School and the MIT Sloan School of Management.
The Hult Prize is the world’s largest student social entrepreneur competition, allowing university student teams to pitch cutting-edge ideas designed to tackle some of the world’s greatest social challenges.
Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult and the Hult International Business School launched the competition four years ago in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. Every year since, thousands of students have applied to pitch their ideas at regional events hosted in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, Shanghai and online.
The six winning teams are invited to spend the following summer in Boston’s Hult Accelerator, further developing their business plans before pitching the start-up ideas at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting held every September in New York City. President Clinton and other attendees select and award the winning team one million dollars to set up their social venture.
The competition itself is centered on case studies that detail a particular global problem for which participants are expected to design effective, financially sustainable solutions. Previous challenges have included pressing issues such as access to clean water and harnessing solar energy.
This year’s challenge – selected and announced by President Bill Clinton last month – is to find a way to get nutritious, affordable food to the hundreds of millions who live in urban slums across the world, making significant progress in reducing food insecurity by 2018.
On Harvard’s team:
Bhandari is part of a team of five Harvard graduate students, three from Graduate School of Design (GSD) and one from the School of Public Health (HSPH).
“We were trying to get a cross-functional team, because that allows us a unique way of looking at things given all the different perspectives,” he explains, confident that having representatives from the policy, business, health and design spheres puts Harvard in a competitive position.
On getting involved:
“It was one of the advantages of having a social circle outside of the Kennedy School, which can get quite insular,” Bhandari says. He ended up joining the Harvard team after spending time with GSD students also interested in the competition. The idea of bringing together a cross functional team was mooted by team captain Venkata Krishna Kumar Matturi of GSD when the Hult Prize was announced in early October 2012. Says Bhandari, “He has been the nucleus, pulling together and composing the rest of the team.” The team brainstormed for half a day in mid-December over google docs and e-mail to come up with its final statement.
On life pre-HKS:
Before moving to Cambridge, Bhandari got his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management and worked for a social impact investment firm in New Delhi. He is hopeful that his business background will serve his team well in the competition, noting that many of the other teams are from business schools. “I was on the other side of the table, evaluating the business plans to determine whether they were scalable and financially sustainable,” he said.
On the value of HKS:
“The first asset that comes to mind is the student body. People have such diverse backgrounds and represent so many countries around the world,” Bhandari says, adding that, “It is likely that some people at HKS have done what you are interested in doing in the future, which provides for a great network of contacts.”
Given his interest in social entrepreneurship and international development, he also appreciates the many opportunities offered by the experts on the HKS faculty, coupled with the business school resources nearby. “It allows you to knock on a lot of different doors.”
The Boston regional finals for the Hult Prize will take place March 2-3 at the Museum of Science, during which each of the student groups will be given 12 minutes to present their ideas.