UI students advance in global entrepreneurial competition

BY BEN MARKS | JANUARY 29, 2015 5:00 AM

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The sixth-annual Hult Prize Foundation recently announced that a team of University of Iowa students has entered the regional finals of a social entrepreneurship startup competition.

More than 20,000 applications were examined from more than 150 countries, and have now been narrowed down to a pool of only 250 teams worldwide, each with the goal of winning the final $1 million prize by developing a sustainable business model designed to help solve a global issue.

The Hult Prize theme changes every year, and in previous years has included such topics as “energy poverty,” “the global food crisis,” and “the clean-water crisis.”

This year, the topic is “early childhood education in the urban slum.”

UI M.B.A. student Julian Valencia is one of the five members of the team and is the first person in his family to get a graduate degree. His background and his Colombian heritage inspired him to pursue education reform.

“No one in my mom’s generation was able to go to school past the eighth grade,” he said. “So growing up, I had a strong urgency when it comes to education as a tool for international development.”

Doctoral psychology student Nicole Hendrix, another member of the team, said there are certain challenges the group had to overcome in the journey to create a workable model.

“The key piece of it is that it’s a sustainable business model,” she said. “Because a lot of time, businesses come in and have a lot of great ideas, but they’re not able to keep it going after a couple months or years.”

Another challenge, Valencia said, is making something that is cheap enough so it’s accessible to someone making $1.50 a day, yet scalable enough that it affects 15 million children.

Each member of the team comes from some sort of education or early childhood background, Hendrix said, and each one brings different skills to the table, including neurology, statistics, and international perspectives. Valencia said hat was invaluable to developing a model.

Jennifer Ott, a Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center training and engagement liaison who has worked with the team members to help them develop their business plan, said she is excited about the team’s progress and chances in the final rounds.

“I’m going to say their odds are great,” she said. “They’re a fantastic team, and they’ve done a lot of work. They’ve had a lot of experience in the start-up world, and hopefully, it’ll pay off for them.”

The regional finals will take place on March 13 and 14 in six cities all over the world; the Iowa team will compete in Boston, where they will showcase their plan and potentially advance to the final round in September.

In Boston, Hendrix said, the team will have eight minutes for the presentation and four minutes for questions.

“The pitch is so quick we’re just really going to have to be able to respond to any sort of questions they throw at us and hope for the best,” she said.

Until then however, the current challenge the team is trying to overcome is raising enough money through a GoFundMe to pay their trip to Boston, as well as continually trying to perfect their models and presentation.

“The future of the world is not going to be decided in the board rooms of a few Fortune 500 companies,” Valencia said. “The future of the world is going to be decided in the classrooms of the developing world, where 90 percent of our population exists.”

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