Impacting The Future: Ahmad Ashkar, Founder And CEO, Hult Prize Foundation
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One of the refreshing aspects of my interview with the Hult Prize Foundation founder and CEO Ahmad Ashkar is that he comes across as someone who doesn’t believe in mincing words. Be it the conviction with which he talks about his enterprise and what it has achieved so far, or his refusal to accept the status quo just because of a that’s-the-way-it-has-always-been-done sort of mentality, this American entrepreneur seems to be charged up with a vision of a better future for the world at large. The Hult Prize Foundation started out in 2009 with its flagship contest that brings together students from across the globe to solve the world’s most pressing issues through pitching ideas and launching companies for a grand prize of US$1 million. It has since grown into becoming “a global millennial startup movement for social good,” with Ashkar and his team essentially developing entrepreneurial pipelines around the world “that transform business minds into change agents for sustainable impact.”
With this being the case, one should be able to see why former US President Bill Clinton would point to the Hult Prize as an example of how the world is being changed for the better in a TIME magazine cover story in 2012, and Ashkar, for his part, is happy to explain his 2009-founded enterprise’s impact further to me. “The Hult Prize has grown from a simple student competition where young people dream up a new kind of business, to a full-blown movement which is leading an entire generation to change the world,” he declares. “Our foundation has deployed over $50 million to create the sector of for-good, for-profit startups emerging out of university. We run workshops, trainings, invest, scale; all for the purpose of changing the trajectory of students on college campuses around the world. Our aim is to provide a risk-free opportunity, and then back it up with the support required to have change."
"We started out as a handful of kids organizing events in a few cities around the world, now we are a team of over 2,500 staff and volunteers, we run over 1,000 demo day events a year, tens of thousands of training seminars and workshops, run the world’s largest incubator in terms of size of cohort, investment dollars, real estate (it’s in a castle of 5,000 acres), and many other criteria. We have a student workforce of over 10,000 organizers, and we anticipate having nearly 150,000 students from over 100 countries participating this year (100,000 already applied in the first round). University staff and administrations are changing curriculum based on the Hult Prize model. We are distinguished in that we are a pipeline creator, the most fundamental piece of the startup funnel. We turn ordinary students into impact entrepreneurs, because we start with people, not ideas. No other platform or organization in the world creates, from scratch, the intent of a startup to be impact centered, profit minded, and market driven.”
As Ashkar rightly notes, the Hult Prize has transformed from what it was in its initial days- but it’s a change that has been for the better. “The Hult Prize has moved beyond the one million dollars,” he notes. “It’s not even technically a prize, it’s a seed stage and stage gated investment we make into the winning company. Annually, nearly $10 million is invested into our startups every year… The objective of our foundation is to shortcut the entrepreneurial journey for young people, and get them to realize that you can build a billion-dollar business by creatively thinking about some of our world’s toughest challenges."
"We pick an exciting area of impact that can be addressed by for-profit, for-good businesses, and then we write a detailed opportunity map, outlining where billion dollar companies could be generated. By focusing all of our network on one topic, it changes the paradigm of a generation, and exposes market inefficiencies in the current development space, which can be solved through business approaches. This year’s challenge is on rethinking how to harness the power of energy to transform 10 million lives. We used to focus on the bottom of the pyramid, but I have shifted our focus on empowering more people to reach the middle class. Tackling poverty is not enough; we must move the lower third into economic independence.”
At a time when social enterprises still find it hard to be seen as sustainable businesses, Ashkar is powering through with negating this notion, and the Hult Prize has been an effective vehicle for drilling this concept in people’s minds. “The idea of a ‘social enterprise’ is misunderstood in some markets, and more developed in others,” he says. “From my perspective, there’s no line drawn in the sand between a standard enterprise and a ‘social’ or ‘impact’ enterprise. The true definition of a social enterprise is simply an enterprise which operates to maximize shareholder value, and recognizes that in order to do so, that it must generate net impact as a byproduct of its existence."
"The world is capitalistic, this will never change. Money makes the world go round. What has changed today is simple- the levers to generate money and market cap. 80% of millennials prefer brands that they can assimilate impact to. $1 out of every $5 spent today is on impact. If you want to build a business that is relevant in the next decade, you have no other choice other than to build the kind of enterprise my team and I around the world promote. It’s why we exist. It’s why I created the Hult Prize, and continue to lead it."
What about the investors though- have we reached a stage where their attention can be commanded by social entrepreneurs? Once again, Ashkar surprises me (in a good way) with his pragmatic take on the situation. “Investors invest in anything that produces a decent multiple return on their money. They are greedy, selfish, and have one goal- that will not change. Our startups generate investment because they are real companies, with real revenues solving real problems, which will return a multiple investment to shareholders."
"Often times, there is a mix up of what the true meaning of a social enterprise is, but for us it is clear- maximize profits, and as a result, you will maximize impact and vice versa; so, of course, the investors are excited. The issue in the sector is actually within its entirety when focused on investment in the early-stage category. This is where the challenge is, because most investment companies focus on low-risk placement of money, which is really stunting growth and innovation in the sector, and allowing for a handful of people and enterprises to monopolize the industry.”
But Ashkar believes that the world’s businesses are indeed sitting up and taking notice of the need to support impact initiatives. “I just saw an ad by Credit Suisse, it said, ‘We will show you how to change the world,’” he says. “The banks have caught on; it’s finally good business to have a soul. The Western markets and elite are ahead of the emerging markets in terms of realizing the value, while markets like Mexico (where I have relocated our corporate HQ) are ahead in the actual product and service innovation design, because they are closer to the need.”
In terms of markets, the Middle East also figures prominently in terms of Ashkar’s assessment of regions where social enterprises stand to make a real difference- Ashkar himself is of Palestinian origins. “The best entrepreneurs come from those parts of the world where innovation is a means to survival,” Ashkar notes. “Palestine, where the population lives under daily occupation, is one of those places. The current state of affairs in MENA is explosive, quite literally. With the majority of nations either at war or in conflict, there has never been a better time for programs like the Hult Prize to operate, because we teach the youth how to transform themselves from job seeking students to game changing entrepreneurs. We guide governments and leading in-country institutions on how to best engage its youth for the mutually beneficial outcomes each desire."
"Our programs give the youth hope either through one of our over 1,600 on-campus programs, or 25 national level prize awarding programs, or our global demo days, which take place across 15 regions worldwide. One of the most influential and inspiring entrepreneurs I have come across is from Egypt- Mohammad Ashour, the founding CEO of Hult Prize-winning startup Aspire Food Group, which now has a market valuation of well over nine digits, and is revolutionizing the food and agriculture sector by introducing a less expensive and environmentally friendly protein alternative.”
2017 Hult Prize Impact Forum at Ashridge Castle
The success the likes of Ashour have seen should be heartening for other social innovators in the Middle East region- but Ashkar is also emphatic about the fact that the Arab world needs to be more forthright in its support for such enterprises and the people behind them. “The region needs more riskfree capital and programs like the Hult Prize which focus on the ‘creation’ stage of the funnel, as opposed to the identification and later stage,” Ashkar says. “I have spent a decade in the sector, and I continue to hear the same thing out of the Gulf and other parts of the Arab world: ‘start a fund,’ ‘open an accelerator,’ ‘create a youth program’- all noble in theory, but worthless if not parlayed with the most critical piece- inspiration and utilization."
"We need more companies and investors that focus on the conversion of youth, and shifting their mindset from more traditional ‘do as told’ students who graduate with engineering and humanities degrees, to problem-solving entrepreneurs. We also need more ministers and government leaders who welcome the advice and council from on-the-ground Arab entrepreneurs, instead of solely relying on Western companies who utilize their global brands to provide on-paper advisory.”
But Ashkar is keen to highlight one nation in the region, which is, in his opinion, taking the right steps needed for transformation. “One such shining light in the region is Lebanon. A country demonstrating pioneering approaches to entrepreneurship and youth through empowerment, localization and a strong focus on the ‘for-us, by-us’ model. I am personally so bought-in to the Lebanese government’s commitment that I have relocated our Middle East headquarters from Dubai to Beirut. In an effort to support the government and the local Arab backed entrepreneur ecosystem, we have launched our pioneering methodology nationwide. Our pioneering model of entrepreneurship and our approach, which starts at inspiration and ends with impact, has officially been made a part of the higher education system across Lebanon. Within the next year, our six-step approach of Inspire, Educate, Compete, Fund, Celebrate, and Connect, will be fully adopted.”
Now, despite all of what Ashkar has said so far, if you –and I’m looking mostly at you, investors and big businesses- still believe that you shouldn’t be paying closer attention to social enterprises, or at least making an effort of your own in terms of impact initiatives, here’s one last pointer that you should perhaps take into consideration when you think about such things. “Follow the data,” Ashkar says. “The largest intergenerational wealth transfer is happening before your eyes. $60 trillion will move to millennials by 2060, $5 trillion in the next five years. This –my- generation make decisions differently than any other generation before them.” Suffice to say, as businesses, you should know that your future customers and clients care about social impact- and if you don’t wish to alienate them, so should you. Impact is important.
Ahmed Ashkar's tips for entrepreneurs in the MENA region
1. Pick the right problem worth solving- you get one, maybe two, shots at this, make it count.
2. Get your prototype ready as fast as you can, and get it to the market.
3. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
4. Once you collect enough market data, build your complete offering and business plan.
5. Hire fast. It doesn’t have to be the perfect fit, just good enough. Keep hiring until you find that perfect employee.
6. Celebrate often. Small wins are as important as the big ones, make sure you find time to celebrate your accomplishments and show your team gratitude.
7. Find your tribe. Make sure your family is on board with your vision, and then find a team who all believe in your North Star.
8. Utilize the North Star metric. Find your way, and base all decisions off the North Star for your company.
9. Build the product or service that is designed for impact.