By Natalie Kostich, MC/MPA 2017
It all started last October, when Laura Oller (HKS/HBS ’19), Marta Milkowska (HKS/Stanford ’19) and Alex Choi (HKS/Wharton ’19), first met at the info session for the Hult Prize (www.hultprize.org), a start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship that brings together students from around the world to solve the world’s most pressing issues.
Little did they know that their meeting would be the start of a motivating, rewarding and challenging road that would inspire us all – the road to the final of the Hult Prize competition.
Marta, Alex and Laura after the Hult Prize regional semi-final (Cambridge, March 2017)
They were motivated to come up with a way to help more than 10 million refugees improve their lives by 2022, the theme for last year’s Hult Prize competition, and decided to put their minds and skills together to form a team to do that. They devised a project called “Dignify” that links refugees to digital microwork via a mobile-based platform.
They placed first of 19 teams at the Hult Prize@ Harvard competition held last December and proceeded to the regional semi-finals held in Cambridge at the Hult International Business School in March. There they placed in the top 6 teams out of 50, and qualified for the final held the following day at the Museum of Science. While they did not win the regional final, they impressed the judges and the Hult Prize board and were later invited to join the summer-long incubator. Alex chose to pursue an internship with Democracy Works as a Shorenstein Fellow in NY and was involved part-time, and Laura and Marta recruited Ziad Reslan (MPP ‘18) and Sara Rendorff-Smith (MC/MPA 2017) to join the effort.
They worked on Dignify all summer, 12 hours per day every day, met with mentors, expanded their network and traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, Lesbos, and Uganda where they pitched their ideas to policy makers including the Prime Minister of Uganda Ruhakana Rugunda and worked with refugees to test their product. As Laura put it: “We were breathing, eating, living and dreaming Dignify all the time!”
Sara with 3 Afghans and 1 Nepalese refugee (Kara Tepe Camp in Lesbos, August 2017)
Ziad and Laura with the Prime Minister of Uganda, Ruhakana Rugunda (Kampala, August 2017)
As a result of their first contract, 11 refugees were able to double their monthly income. The team gathered 17 letters of intent from clients willing to outsource work for Dignify as well as partners on the ground who would help recruit and train refugees and struggling locals to do digital work. They also received a $50k grant from the Tent Foundation that they will use for a pilot program and tech development to enable them to prove the concept and be able to expand the business sustainably and with impact.
The team’s efforts once again paid off as they were invited to compete for the “wild card” round for a spot in the finals… and they won it.
Dignify evolved over the entire 11-month period from a flicker of an idea to a compelling initiative that would be presented on stage at the United Nations in front of hundreds of spectators including top-tier social entrepreneurs, members of the Hult family, top management of EF Education First and past winners of the Hult Prize from various universities throughout the world.
Team Dignify pitching their idea at the Hult Prize Final (United Nations in N.Y., September 2017)
The event was spectacular: six ideas with the ability to improve the lives of millions of refugees were presented, heard, questioned, and deliberated upon by the panel of nine judges including Neal Kent-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, Charles Kane, Chairman of One Laptop per Child, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever and Muna Abusulayman, former MBC co-host. Bill Clinton announced the winner: Roshni Rides, crafted by students of Rutgers University – a ride-sharing rickshaw service for refugees (http://money.cnn.com/2017/09/19/technology/roshni-rides-hult-prize-winner/index.html).
While the HKS team did not win the $1 million dollar prize, they won on many levels – their ideas were put to the test, they learned a lot throughout the process, gained tremendous exposure and were recognized for having put together an excellent project for which they will continue to pursue potential funding opportunities. Team Dignify displayed humility, perseverance and true sportsmanship throughout. They are currently reassessing their strategy and considering their next steps in pursuing their commitment to helping refugees. They deserve a huge congratulations for their efforts and dedication to the mission, and for making the HKS community extremely proud.
Marta, Ziad, Laura, and Sara
The Hult Prize competition takes place every year. The topic for this year’s competition is to build a scalable, sustainable business that improves the lives of 10M people by harnessing the power of energy. The preliminary round of the Hult Prize competition@ Harvard will take place at HKS in December. It is open to all Harvard students from all graduate schools as well as the college and encourages students to form multidisciplinary teams. Further details will be available at the info session to be held in the next few weeks. I am pleased to pass the torch on to Laura Cohen Escobar, MC/MPA 2019 (Laura_escobar@student.hks.harvard.edu). Laura has been involved with the Hult Prize Foundation since 2010 and launched the first National Competition, Hult Prize Colombia, in 2015. Please reach out to her directly with questions about competing or joining the organizing committee for Hult Prize@Harvard.
Congratulations and good luck to Dignify! And for future social entrepreneurs, keep your eyes open for updates on this year’s Hult Prize@Harvard competition!