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Reawakening Human Potential: The Refugee Opportunity And The Hult Prize Challenge

Reawakening Human Potential: The Refugee Opportunity and The Hult Prize Challenge


Taylor Research Fellow, Josh Schoop, has been integrating his research on the refugee crisis with his work with the Hult Prize Foundation. Read about his experience below. 

During the past four months I have had the chance to work with the Hult Prize Foundation to study refugees and involuntary migration as we collaboratively developed their 2017 Case Challenge. This post discusses my research on refugees, the development of the 2017 Case Challenge, and the potential for student entrepreneurs in tackling the refugee crisis around the world.

The Hult Prize

Before I get into the details of the refugee crisis and our work, let me first explain a little about the Hult Prize. The Hult Prize is a $1 million business plan competition aimed at student teams from universities and colleges around the world. The competition seeks to create and launch “the most compelling social business ideas – start-up enterprises that tackle grave issues faced by billions of people”. Student teams compete regionally with the winners advancing into a summer accelerator program in Boston, MA at Hult Business School. Here, the different and diverse student teams work with consultants and other experts to advance their ideas in preparation for the final $1 million pitch during the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). For the past four months, I worked as a primary author and researcher for the Hult Prize Foundation in developing the 2017 Case Challenge.

The Refugee Landscape

Back in May, I began exploring the complex world of refugees and involuntary migrants. After several days of puzzling over literature and the alphabet soup of definitions, I noticed the existence of something that is pervasive in global development: We have way too many definitions and labels that attempt to simplify the world that at times only make it harder to understand. After unpacking the various terms and acronyms for refugees and related issues, our team began to consider how we might redefine the way we look at what it means to be a refugee for the Challenge.

The definition of a refugee, according to the United Nations, is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” Using this definition, it is estimated that over 65 million people are refugees today. This is the highest number since World War II. From our exploration, however, we began to notice that this definition needed to be updated and expanded to capture the depth of the issue.

Obtaining a “refugee status” is limited to people registered with the United Nations. Those who are granted refugee status receive support and aid in camps and informal settlements. This group often seeks asylum and eventual resettlement abroad. The definition, however, excludes groups that face similar threats to survival including:

  • Over 100 million internally displaced persons globally who are forced to relocate due to social, political, or economic crisis at home and often resettle within their own borders
  • Approximately 50 million people that have fled or on the brink of leaving home because of environmental degradation linked to climate change
  • An estimated 860 million people who have fled rural areas due to economic deprivation creating mass informal settlements or slums in urban settings

As we continued our research, we realized that the similarities in populations that receive the UN refugee status, (those being forced from their homes and resettling internally), and those who are excluded (those under a constant threat at home from rising sea levels, perpetual conflict, or economic collapse) were striking. Across the groups that receive the refugee status and those who have been excluded, the consistent thread is that crisis conditions at home threatened livelihood and existence, forcing over one billion people into refugee like conditions.

What can a $1 million prize competition really do about the refugee challenge?

This will not surprise those who know me, but initially, I was skeptical about what student entrepreneurs could really do about the refugee crisis. When you peel back the layers and weed through the morass of definitions, fundamentally being a refugee is about statelessness and loss of human dignity. This is linked to policy and what governments around the world allow involuntarily displaced people to do in camps, informal settlements, and other areas of displacement.  Most official refugees cannot work and rely on support from aid organizations. All refugees, regardless of how it is defined, have lost their sense of place, identity, and culture, to varying degrees, which is only exacerbated by the lack of opportunity.

If the crisis is linked to policy and a lack of access to opportunities for refugees – what can student entrepreneurs and for-profit mechanisms do about it?

Part of the task of writing the Hult Prize Challenge was considering how to orient student entrepreneurs, many with a business background, to the challenges of refugees and human development. We focused on opportunity mapping to identify areas where solutions could be applied, and then used the case challenge to focus student teams toward the problems they could solve.

What inspired me the most about the opportunity to work with Hult is the recognition by the team that the refugee crisis is not a crisis of resources but one of imagination. This was only strengthened through my participation in last week’s Clinton Global Initiative during which I attended the Hult Prize 2016 Challenge final pitch competition. Student teams from Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, the UK, and Mexico pitched their ideas on how to address challenges in crowded urban spaces. I was impressed and inspired by what I saw. The winning team – the Magic Bus – created an Uber-like software application that works offline through mobile phones to address transportation problems in urban Nairobi, related to its’ matatu system. Each idea has significant potential to create real impact and all received investment and support from philanthropists, venture capitalists, and policymakers to help grow their ideas. Through the passion of these entrepreneurs and the investment that teams received beyond the $1 million prize, I grew in confidence about how our case study could catalyze entrepreneurs to tackle the refugee crisis.

What’s next

My experiences at CGI left me optimistic and excited to see what the next year will bring. The refugee crisis was discussed throughout the week in NYC, and the Hult Prize only helped elevate the focus on real solutions. Over the next year, hundreds of student teams from across the world will concentrate on solutions to the refugee crisis, applying their creativity, risk-taking, and business acumen to the issues. As the crisis is elevated, I see business as a lever to unlock policies and expand the narrow thinking that perceive refugees as a problem to keep out. Rather than closing off our borders and building walls, we should look at the crisis as one of opportunity.

From studying this complex issue, I have determined that refugees face an intractable situation that requires a total reworking of the system. Losing your home, your culture, and your identity is the most demoralizing position that any human could experience. The Hult Prize is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Solutions have yet to truly address the challenge and because of this realization, I am excited to continue pursuing opportunities, to research, and to support refugees.

Want More?

Anyone interested in learning more about the Hult Prize, Josh’s future work with refugees, and getting involved is encouraged to join us at Taylor this Friday, September 30, 2016 from 2 PM to 4 PM in 200 Flower Hall for a conversation on the Refugee Opportunity. He will discuss this work further and consider the potential for prize competitions in tackling global challenges like the refugee crisis.



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