x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hult Prize chief on a mission to tackle poverty

Ahmad Ashkar, the founder and chief executive of the US$1 million Hult Prize, talks about his passion for social entrepreneurship.

Ahmad Ashkar, the founder and chief executive of the Hult Prize, says social enterpreneurs in the region face the challenge of role models. Jaime Puebla / The National
Ahmad Ashkar, the founder and chief executive of the Hult Prize, says social enterpreneurs in the region face the challenge of role models. Jaime Puebla / The National

Ahmad Ashkar is the founder and chief executive of the Hult Prize, a start-up accelerator for student social entrepreneurs that aims to launch innovative enterprises that can tackle some of the world’s gravest issues. Managed by the Boston-based Hult Prize Foundation, the regional finals for the US$1 million prize took place in Dubai on Saturday, focusing on this year’s theme “Solving Non-Communicable Disease in the Urban Slum”. There were 43 teams from 38 universities including those from the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, China, Lebanon, Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, India, Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan. The final round of the challenge will take place on September 22 in New York. Mr Ashkar, a 31-year-old Palestinian American, reveals more about the importance of social enterprises in the region.

You were a student at Hult International Business School in Boston in 2009 when you came across the idea of starting this challenge. What led you to this?

I slipped, tripped, fell and landed into this. I was in Islamic banking in New York, and made the transition to the business school during the fall of the markets to let time pass as the markets corrected. I sat at the back of the class and one day listened to a presentation by Chuck Kane, the chief executive of One Laptop per Child, on driving down costs of laptops so that poor children across the world get themselves out of poverty through education. Selling a product to the poor to alleviate poverty seems an oxymoron, and I was intrigued. My “aha” moment came when I realised that I, this western-educated son of immigrants from the slums in Palestine did not know about social enterprise. That was the beginning of the journey.

The prize has changed its structure since the first one in 2010. What are the changes and what can we expect next year?

We used to focus on global issues that were tied to implementing non governmental organisations [to assist the winning team in setting up the business]. From last year, we have changed it. Last year’s winner Mohammed Ashour’s Aspire Food Group, which sells insect livestock, is now our portfolio company. We have a 10 per cent equity stake in it, and we have a seven-year exit plan. It could be through a sale or an initial public offering. Also, this will be the second year that we were totally integrated with the Clinton Foundation. Next year, we will expand it beyond college students.

This year’s theme is Solving Non-Communicable Disease in the Urban Slum. Do you think the topic is relevant to the young entrepreneurs in the Gulf region?

Yes, because by 2025, 50 per cent of the world population will live in an urban slum, which is a low-income area with little social services. And slum dwellers hold the key to unlocking the opportunities. Non-communicable diseases are important because the world’s poor are dying more from cancer and diabetes than TB and malaria. Non-communicable diseases then become more important because cost of care is a drain on the economy, and draw families that are not poor into poverty. Moreover, the innovation that comes out of [enterprises around] non-communicable diseases can be imported back to the West and help in [reducing the cost of] health care there. For instance, there is a team from Europe that seeks to eliminate the use of syringes in administering vaccines. There is another from MIT that will compile big data from slums and sell it to pharmaceutical companies.

Of the 43 teams, nine are from the UAE, including Hult International Business School, Masdar, New York University in Abu Dhabi and the University of Sharjah.

What are the challenges that social entrepreneurs here face?

They run it like charities. And they face the challenge of role models.

What happens after a team wins a challenge?

Besides the money, the team is incubated for seven weeks in our foundation. We mentor them. All the other finalists become members of the Clinton Global Initiative. They receive mentorship, partner development and commercialisation and they get a lifetime relationship with our organisation, and can leverage our alumni and expansive international network.

How many of your winners have actually gone on to start a successful business?

There are currently three active start-ups out of four. The one that didn’t quite make it was from 2012 on a housing project, where we couldn’t put the financing together. And after this we stopped partnering with an outside organisation.

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