Hundreds of students recently converged in five cities around the world to tackle this year's Hult Global Case Challenge. Arriving in Boston, Dubai, London, San Francisco, and Shanghai, they presented their solutions to global poverty through education, energy, and housing. The NYUAD team, which was up against 15 other institutions participating in the Dubai energy track, came out on top and will now advance to the finals in New York City in April. There, the team will compete against the other regional finalists (the winning teams from each track per location), presenting their proposals to a panel of international business leaders, after which one team from each track will be chosen as the Global Winner.
Held simultaneously across all of Hult Business School's campuses, the international competition brings together college and university students from near and far to find solutions for social challenges in partnership with leading NGOs. This year, participants were asked to tackle one of three tracks under the global poverty umbrella.
For the NYUAD team — sophomores Madhav Vaidyanathan, Songyishu Yang, Muhammad Awais Islam, and Gary Chien, as well as Neil Parmer, an NYU alumnus — the focus was energy. More specifically, to provide solar lighting to one million homes in Africa by 2013. "We chose the energy track partly because we wanted to work with a small company," explained Vaidyanathan. "The companies working with the housing and education tracks were larger and already had solutions out there."
Having received their case in January from SolarAid, an organization that installs solar panels in rural areas across East and Southern Africa, the NYUAD students got straight to work, determining the challenge's key issues and gathering data to begin constructing their solution model. They also approached NYUAD faculty to help them along the way. Working with professors Ramesh Jagannathan (engineering), Chetan Dave (economics), and Yaw Nyarko (economics), the students developed their case solutions by bouncing ideas off of their mentors. "It was great working with them," said Vaidyanathan. "They allowed us to think freely, but helped us filter our ideas. It gave us the freedom to learn something."
The team also traveled to Ethiopia to gather information on the ground and test their model. "It turned out that some of the issues we addressed in our model were not primary issues," explained Vaidyanathan. Thus, the trip gave them the chance to revise their solution, an opportunity that Vaidyanathan felt contributed to the team's win. "We realized that the general opinion is that solar parts are too expensive and people don't have the disposable income to afford them," said Vaidyanathan. "But people are willing, if you provide them with after-sale service." With this realization, the group set out to establish a model in which African communities could be mobilized to be part of the process. By fostering and reinforcing trust as part of the solar package, buyers wouldn't worry about the product breaking, and the solution would create jobs for local people — "mostly women," said Vaidyanathan, "as they have the propensity to distribute income." By making the community part of their "office aid," the team's model proved one of the most successful solutions to addressing their case challenge.
With just two months to prepare for the finals, the team is hard at work researching Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi — countries in which SolarAid has offices — to see if their Ethiopian model fits. "We have a working model that's pretty good," said Vaidyanathan, "but it can only get better from here." Competing against mostly MBA graduate students from top schools around the world, the NYUAD team will face tough competition. "The bar will certainly be raised much higher," said team mentor Ramesh Jagannathan, "but I believe our chances are very good."