Young Biz Entrepreneurs Compete For Social Good

If you walked into the dimly lit, wood-paneled room and listened to the fast-paced talk by Cynthia Koenig, you might be forgiven for thinking she just sounded like another one of those young, profit-oriented entrepreneurs looking for money from venture capitalists or other kinds of investors.

Koenig is, actually, one of those money-seeking young business types, except that the primary goal of her proposal is to make life a lot easier and safer for millions of poor women around the world.

Hence the Wello, a kind of goofy looking water-carrying wheel-barrel (no, that’s not a typo) that she and her colleague, Colm Fay, at the University of Michigan’s business school want to sell to poor people.

Saving time and money, for $25

Water collection and storage, it turns out, takes up a lot of time and resources for people (usually women) in poor communities around the world. The Wello is aimed at saving both, as well as providing a handy storage unit.

“We’ve identified India as the first market we’re going to enter,” she said during a pitch Thursday at the University of Washington.”We think this is rapidly scalable … with a social return on investment of $178.65.”

Okay, I admit I didn’t always follow everything being said. I know vaguely what is meant by a social return on investment, but I didn’t have time to ask Koenig how the Wello, which she estimates will initially sell for about $25, is calculated to have a social benefit of nearly $180 to an individual.

I didn’t have time because Koenig was just one of an amazing array of social entrepreneurs at the UW’s Foster School of Business’ Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSEC). The event ran all week and ended Thursday.

Koenig’s Wello won the “global health” prize of $10,000 from the UW Global Health Department.

“Grand prize” for perhaps the most unpleasant presentation

Do you know what the phrase “flying toilet” means? Ugh.

For proposing a business-like approach to the global problem of poop, and the fact that people use plastic bags when no toilet’s available, David Auerbach and Anirudh Vallabhaneni, both from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, took home the $12,500 top honor, provided by the Seattle International Foundation and Microsoft.

Sanergy is the name of their project. Their idea, already being launched in the slums of Kenya, sounded a bit like how Starbucks would approach the problem — of figuring out how to make money from something that had for years been neglected (a cheap cup of coffee) as a major business opportunity.

“Our toilets have three key elements that users in slums say they value most,” said Auerbach, describing their market survey results from really crappy parts of Nairobi.

The MIT gang likely won because they seemed to have answers to all the judges’ questions about their business model, competition threats, pricing and logistics. The idea, which you can read about at their web site, is to set up numerous for-profit businesses that reward building public toilets, collecting waste and using the waste to create fertilizer and (through methane) electricity that can be sold back to local utilities. Very impressive.

Other impressive competitors at GSEC included:

  • A gang of UW engineering students, represented by Pranoti Hiremath and Christopher Mount, devised a method for adapting cellphones for use as diagnostic devices in poor communities.
  • A team from UC-Berkeley, NextDrop, also wants to use cellphones to help people in India find out (through text messaging) when the water utility will turn the water on. Intermittent water access is a big problem. The Berkeley team did win an award, sponsored my Microsoft
    for telecommunications strategies.
  • Students from Dhaka, Bangladesh, proposed a business to manufacture inexpensive inhalers for the many poor people (several hundred million) who are impaired in their daily activities by asthma.

Wren McNally, who coordinates the competition for the UW’s Global Business Center, said interest in the GSEC contest has exploded in the last few years. Started in 2005, McNally said, the idea is to stimulate innovative and cross-disciplinary ideas aimed at enlisting business to solve some of the world’s toughest health, environmental, social and justice problems.

“In the last two years, we’ve seen a huge increase in applications,” she said. So far, McNally said, more than 1,400 students from 41 countries have participated in the contest.

Something is going on with this generation, she said. They’re not just interested in getting jobs, raising a family and collecting the standard assortment of material goods.

“They really do want to make things better,” McNally said. And one way do it is through business.

Young Biz Entrepreneurs Compete For Social Good
Tom Paulson | Humanosphere | February 18