The challenge was to employ 10,000 youth with meaningful work that leaves the world better off. Each year the Clinton Global Initiative sponsors the Hult Case Competition which sources hundreds of thousands of start-up ideas from 1000 universities across nearly 30 countries that all focus on one impact, world-changing opportunity. After living in Nepal for the year andhalf before graduate school, I had a sense of the challenge and the opportunity. Years before, I had learned about the start-up Precious Plastic. The online community is comprised the open source blueprints for four machines that shreds, extruders, compresses, and injects plastic from street-side waste into beautiful consumer products. So the idea was simple, target developing countries where waste management systems are wholly inadequate, which leaves plastic waste discarded in community spaces and support youth to build these machines and sell their products in the local market. We built our financial model, we estimated our growth trajectory, we researched multiple countries where this idea might have legs. And then we pitched, competing with 14 teams at Vanderbilt’s campus wide Hult competition.
Being the runner’s up in the local competition only added fuel to our fire. We heard from the judges that our idea had potential, it just needed refining. So, inspired to see where Hult might take us, we applied to the regional level of the competition independently. When we were accepted to the Toronto Regional competition, the work got serious. Half of our team couldn’t go because Project Pyramid, another TFC sponsored program, was happening the same week. Emory and I took the work our team had already done and began refining the business plan with the advising of Mario and past Hult competitors. We dug into country specific research, invested over 30 hours in the assumptions undergirding our financial model, and took another 30 hours to refine our pitch deck. Finally, we were on our way, and while the model wasn’t drastically different from where it had started, now we could enter Q&A with confidence. What started as a lean business model canvas had become a full-fledged business plan that we believed was worthy of a $1 million investment.
The day of the competition was both exciting and inspirational. Everyone present was focused on solving the pressing problem of youth unemployment, albeit in different settings – some focused on the formerly incarcerated in Mexico while others focused on recent graduates in U.S. Although our team did not move into the final round, we were able to take away key learning points:
- The business model requires an intimate understanding of the key stakeholders. Our business was planned to take place in India. However, our team did not have any experience or personal insight into conducting business in India. The judges asked probing questions that were difficult for us to answer without any experience working in India. The teams who were chosen to participate in the final round all had worked with their target population.
- In order to convince the judges that a team is capable, a pilot is often needed. Five out of the six teams chosen had implemented parts of their business model to some extent and showed images of their work during the presentation. This was perhaps the most effective strategy to convince the judges of their abilities to deliver a product.
We learned from these experiences and incorporated these lessons into our future plans. We soon heard of a competition between the Acumen Fund and Unilever to reduce plastic footpritnt and implement recycling in India. SInce Acumen already has people on the ground, we thought this was the perfect competition for us! We attended a few webinars and read up on the subject so that we understood what was required of us and submitted our pitch deck. Through the Acumen-Unilever Social Innovation Challenge on Plastic Reduction, we learned about social enterprise models, business canvases, a roadmap to success in India, and proper social brainstorming methods for innovation. It was truly a fun process and we shall see if we get the prize of $25,000 (as of the time of writing, no updates have been received).
Should we win the grant money or not, we plan on continuing to work with Hult, TFC, and C4E in order to run a pilot of upcycling plastic on Vanderbilt University’s campus. This will involve recruiting new people to head this enterprise as we learn what’s possible for turning plastic waste into consumer goods. The idea is to of course act local and think global with a pilot. Thank you for reading about our journey!