Thursday, March 26th, 2015...10:07 am

A Student’s Reflection on the 2015 Regional Hult Competition

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– Blog contributed by Kelly Quackenbush, MPA ’15

On Friday, March 13th, my team and I piled into Tim’s van for the drive up to San Francisco, and I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have butterflies in our stomachs. We were on our way to compete against nearly 50 other schools in the 2015 Regional Hult Competition. The challenge this year was “How can we provide quality early education to ten million children under age six in urban slums?”

My team consisted of Timothy Cunningham, Katie Barthelow, Noah Halton, and myself, and we had been working together for 6 months on our social enterprise, the Learning Roots Network. Our idea was to use technology to facilitate real-life interaction between caregiver and child. We would organize workshops about holistic early childhood education, and facilitate activity design sessions whereby residents in slums would create activities that made sense to them. These would be simple, short activities, such as stacking cups, identifying colors around the house, or counting grains of rice. Our idea was based on the premise that knowledge already exists in slums. What we wanted to do was shine a light on those local ways of knowing and nurture them to create a marketable product (which we call an “activity-based app”). Ultimately, we hoped, we would challenge people’s ideas about where knowledge comes from (doesn’t have to be from “experts”), and how value is created (value can come from slum communities).

Friday afternoon we arrived for registration and were handed folders, asked to pose for pictures, and shown to our very own break-out room, where we could relax and prepare. Half the teams would present in the morning, and half in the afternoon. We were scheduled for the morning, which meant that we would hear other teams’ pitches in the afternoon. Our friend Nicole Manapol volunteered to accompany us for the day as our “team advisor” and it was wonderful to have the extra support as we practiced our pitch the last few times. Finally, we were called.

The room where the pitches happened was a large classroom. Three judges were present: the Senior VP of Levi Strauss, the Executive Director of First 5, and the former CEO of Sally Ride Science, Inc. Approximately 25 students sat behind them and made up the audience.

And then we were presenting! I heard Noah thank the judges and begin the introduction, and I picked up where he left off at my part. Once in the room, I was surprised that I didn’t feel more nervous. It was performance time, and I was all about communicating our idea with passion, and connecting with the judges and audience. The 8 minutes went by in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and as a team we responded to 4 minutes of questions. Just like that, it was over. Out in the hall we hugged and high-fived – we felt really good about our presentation, our idea, and all the work we had put into it. No matter what happened, no one could take that accomplishment away from us.

The rest of the morning passed slowly. After the adrenaline rush wore off, I was exhausted and took a break on the floor of our break-out room. At around 2 o’clock we were called in to be observers and got to listen to 7 other teams pitch. This was one of my favorite parts of the day – it was so interesting to hear what the other teams had come up with. Some ideas were similar to ours, and some were very different. I enjoyed the varied presentation styles and amount of hard work everyone had obviously put in.

At 6 o’clock everyone was convened in a large tent for the final ceremony. A judge from each group (six groups of 6 – 7 teams) got on stage and introduced the winner of that group. The room dripped with anticipation and nervous energy. The winner from Group A was announced, and asked to go on stage on the spot to give their pitch a second time. The winner from Group B was announced and also presented again. We were Group C. I couldn’t stand it – I think I forgot to breathe as the judge began congratulating all the teams in her group. And then… a different team was called. I experienced a simultaneous sadness and relief as I leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath. It was over.

The final winner was a team out of Florida, who we had seen present in the afternoon session. We had spoken with them earlier in the day and learned that they were made up of all business students and one education student. I was happy for them – they will go on to compete in the Finals in New York next fall. They or one of the 5 other teams in the Finals will win $1 million dollars to launch their social enterprise!

I left the competition feeling a sense of hope. It seems what we expect of businesses is changing, especially for the Millennial generation. It used to be that we were happy if a business had some kind of nod to Corporate Social Responsibility, but increasingly we are demanding that the very WAY they do business has a positive social impact. I think that’s why I find the social enterprise space so exciting.


  •   Bonnie Benham
    March 26th, 2015 at 11:58 am    

    Kelly and team: You put so much heart into your project and I’m sure you conveyed that in your presentation. Congratulations on putting yourselves out there and accomplishing a great feat! I’m super happy for you.

  •   Kelly Quackenbush
    March 26th, 2015 at 12:15 pm    

    Thanks Bonnie!! I’d also like to give a shout-out to you and other MIIS colleagues who helped us refine our presentation leading up to the competition! We couldn’t have done so well without all the wonderful support!

  •   Sheryl Chamberlain
    April 12th, 2015 at 5:23 am    

    Kelly I was one of the judges, and have been a Hult Prize judge for 3 years running. My fellow judges deliberated the longest all the groups. They believed in each of the teams, and while you didn’t go the SF Hult Prize Regionals, you will always be a winner. Last year I selected Amanda’s Boyd’s team, which did not win the SF Regionals contest, but as you know she is a winner, now San Fran Hult Prize Director. Check out my blog posts on innovationstationblog where I share the judges perspective. Good luck!

  •   Kelly Quackenbush
    April 12th, 2015 at 1:03 pm    

    Thank you for the encouraging words Sheryl, and for sharing the link to your blog. Win or lose, the Hult Competition is a great experience!

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