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Five years ago, Ahmad Ashkar was just another suit in the banking world. Palestinian-born, Ashkar spent his days on the investment and real estate banking circuit between New York City and Dubai before deciding to head to top-ranked business school Hult International Business School in Massachusetts for his MBA.

Ahmad Ashkar

“I didn’t care what was going on in the rest of the world – I was making a paycheck and living the lifestyle I wanted,” said Ashkar by phone Tuesday while in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Summit. “What I learned in school was that there was a huge opportunity at the bottom of the economic pyramid, if people were business savvy. That was the concept behind the GCC (Global Case Challenge) – to bring some business sustainability and generate a profit,” in emerging markets.

Three years after graduating from Hult, Ashkar has turned this concept into a challenge for thousands of MBA students around the globe.

The Hult Global Case Challenge, open to students worldwide, asks competitors to provide a business solution to global problems. The winning project earns $1 million in seed money to put the project into play through one of Hult’s three non-profit partners in the education, energy, and housing sectors.

From idea “fragment” to worldwide event

Since launching the Hult GCC, Ashkar and his team have set lofty goals – and met them.

“Our goal after last year’s challenge was to make it three times bigger,” said Ashkar. “I’ve spent the majority of the last eight months in an airport, but we’re almost going to be more than three times bigger with basically 5,000 students physically taking part from 91 of the top 100 MBA programs.”

This year, Hult GCC also added a social media page to increase the global communication between participating schools. Participants come from more than 130 countries and represent more than 300 different institutes of higher education. Students, in groups of 4-5, submit 2-3 minute videos that are then voted on. Top students compete at one of five regional centers, at Hult campuses in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, and Shanghai.

Ashkar has three main goals behind the Hult GCC project:

  • MBA students realize that businesses can actually make money serving the world’s most struggling economies; it is not just for non-profits.
  • It is a chance for MBAs to meet “like-minded change-makers”. With 130 business schools participating in this year’s event, even if students don’t come away with the $1 million of seed money grand prize, there’s still hundreds of opportunities to share ideas. Ashkar notes also, that while the students participating in the challenge are from prominent international schools, many from these emerging markets have experienced problems like water safety, poverty and hunger first hand.
  • The GCC is a place to get passionate about world issues. Last year’s Boston winner, which ironically was Boston University, did not go on to win the grand price, however the team was so passionate about their pilot idea, they went on to pitch it to venture capitalists and found funding for their project. It currently is in the development stages in India.

Online students, get involved

Online students from across the globe can compete for the grand prize seed money by sending in a two-to-three minute video summarizing their social challenge solution via the official online competition website. Online voting for the best ideas begins February 25.

“Internet communications technology enables us to give our good ideas wings,” said Ashkar. “Any student can take a good idea and tap into the power of social media and grow the concept into a pilot. Students always ask me how I got funding for GCC. Funding is a byproduct of a good idea, but you have to be fully invested; it can’t just be a fragment.”

Ashkar thinks anyone at any school – traditional or online – can pitch a social change idea.

“First, think creatively,” said Ashkar. “Get into new networks. If you have the fragment of an idea, you can meet new people and maybe put some fragments together, or fill yours in. Utilize the recourses of social media, and finally, don’t be scared to put your idea forward.”

This year’s challenge

This year’s student competitors are charged with addressing global poverty through sustainable business solutions. Students can tackle poverty by creating specific solutions in the education, energy, or housing sectors. Each sector is partnered with a non-profit: One Laptop Per Child, Solar Aid, and Habitat for Humanity. The Clinton Global Initiative is partnered with Hult GCC to help provide expertise on global issues and to publicize the competition. The Hult family provides the $1 million in seed money granted to the winning project.

Last year’s case studies were based on the challenge of providing clean water in partnership with Water.org, founded by Gary White and Matt Damon. The winning team was from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Their proposal involved using mobile phone use in developing countries to create an incentive plan with existing WaterCredit loans. The non-profit’s created WaterCredit is a form of currency that keeps those in impacted communities from paying hefty fees for clean water, sometimes sold in a near-black market environment.

The winners of this year’s challenge fighting global poverty will be selected and announced in April after the final competition in New York.

– Anna Schumann and Alanna Stagm