I have always been passionate about making a difference in people’s lives. Studying economics as an undergrad exposed me to the field’s power and how it can be used as a tool to transform people’s lives. This passion led me to apply to the Fulbright Program. Now, I’m fortunate enough to be a Fulbright Student enrolled in the Graduate Program of Economic Development (GPED) at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
This past academic year, I had the honor of representing my university at the 2016 Hult Prize Challenge Regionals, in San Francisco, California. The Hult Prize Challenge is an initiative of The Clinton Foundation. It is an annual case competition open to university students from all over the world that they enter through their universities. Each year presents a new challenge of global concern that students have to solve. The challenge is mostly a way to mobilize social entrepreneurship as a method to solving some of the world’s biggest problems.
This year’s challenge was, “Can we build sustainable, scalable and fast growing social enterprises that double the income of 10 million people residing in crowded urban spaces, by better connecting people, goods and services and capital?”
As a GPED student and Fulbright Student, I jumped at this opportunity. A chance to start something that could potentially change people’s lives; I definitely had to get involved. Thousands of teams from universities around the world entered the competition. Two women from my program invited me to form a team with them who happen to be some of the most passionate people I know when it comes to promoting socio-economic change. They have been previously involved in several projects to this effect, which made them the perfect team to join.
We entered the @Vanderbilt leg of the challenge last November. Coming up with an idea for a social enterprise that can impact 10 million people was actually the easiest part. Our idea had to be simple enough to be adaptable in different economies as well as something that could be scaled quickly. And simple our idea was. Our idea was to create a juice production company in Lagos, Nigeria (a city that is known as the mega city of slums), that would employ local people as distribution vendors. The hard work really started after we won at Vanderbilt!
We enrolled in a class in the business school called Launching the Venture, to fine tune our idea and turn it into a viable business. It’s worth mentioning that we were an all-women’s team of three development economics students who’d just immersed themselves into a male dominated business class. Intimidating, to say the least. That class was the most intense seven weeks of 2015. Our idea was challenged in every way imaginable. The rest of the team travelled to Lagos, Nigeria to do some much needed research. By March 12, 2016, the day of the regional round of the competition rolled around, we were more than ready!
We travelled to San Francisco, our first time there, for the competition. At the same time, four more regionals were taking place in Boston, Dubai, London, and Shanghai. 200 teams were to compete for only five spots to make it to the final round. Those five teams partook in a three-month incubator where they test the enterprise and receive world class mentorship. They then pitch their idea to President Bill Clinton, a panel of judges comprised of leaders at the forefront of socio-economic change, and Nobel Prize Laureates.
We met leaders in the social enterprise scene including the founder and CEO of the Hult Prize Foundation, and one of the team members of last year’s Hult Prize Challenge winners. We interacted with teams that had flown in from all over the country and world. Each team had to pitch their idea in just six minutes. Dedication is too small a word to describe these teams. All of them had such unique and amazing ideas. No one approached the challenge in the same way or with the same idea. The passion in the presentations given was palpable. We had our moment, brief as it was, and it felt amazing!
Even though at the end of the day, we didn’t win, I think the world won. There is this movement of young dynamic people who have the passion and drive to change the world. We all share the same belief, we need to start enterprises that aren’t just profit driven, but work to make people’s lives better. There is no “they” in the world. We, including all Fulbrighters, are the “they” who can end poverty, hunger and inequality in this world. It is us; you and I. We are “they” and “they” can change the world!
I learned so much about how people are trying to change the world; the innovation and potential solutions to poverty. It renewed my mission to make a difference in people’s lives, especially in my country. I learned that economic development is not just limited to what I learn at school, that I can in fact use my education to come up with innovative solutions.
This whole experience led me to join the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures (TFC) housed in the Vanderbilt Owen Business School. This has helped me be engaged with people who share a similar vision to mine. It has also helped me expand my view, as engaging with local social enterprises and communities is a huge part of the TFC mandate. Currently, I’m working with the Nashville city government, through TFC, on a project at the local fairgrounds where we are trying to bring about a change that engages and helps the Nashville community. I’m excited to take all that I learn from all these experiences I’ve had during my Fulbright grant back home to make a real difference in my communities.