Attitude for Change

by Annie Longsworth on March 5, 2013

Annie - Hult Prize

Last night I went to the Bliss Spa at the W in Atlanta (it’s wonderful, you should go there), and noticed the hours of operation listed on a sign outside the door: Monday – Friday 9 – 9. Sat – Sun 9 – 9.

As I checked in, I asked the young man at the desk if the spa is open 9 – 9 seven days a week, why not just say “9 – 9 everyday”? I asked the question to make conversation and point out something sort of funny; the actual signage doesn’t really matter. But the guy’s answer did. He said, somewhat rudely I thought, “I have no idea. I don’t make the signs.” Part of me fears that that attitude pretty much sums up the world right now. “I don’t know, not my fault, don’t bother me.”

But then I think about last Saturday, when I participated in a competition to help get one group of B-school students on their way to win $1,000,000 to realistically end hunger in the urban slums of the world. Now that matters.

Over the weekend I was honored to help judge and give the keynote address to the Hult Prize competition at the Hult International Business School in San Francisco. About 50 teams of business school students from around the world gathered in SF to present their solutions to a case study on a very specific challenge: how to address food security in urban slums by 2018.

The case study outlines a dire need for education, as well as access and availability of healthy, good tasting food in the thousands of slums in our world, where more than 200 million people are, well, starving. The case focused specifically on cities, not rural areas, because the favelas, bustees, barrios and shanty towns are overlooked by the usual groups that might be interested in addressing a global issue. Governments see slums as outside the law, as generally they are not legal places to live. Few corporations see the business opportunity with this “Bottom of the Pyramid” consumer. And NGOs typically have more measurable success in outside cities, making rural surrounds their higher priority.  And yet each year more people are pushed to an urban life, only to find themselves unable to feed their children and themselves.

The issues are complex and overwhelming, and the Hult Prize, which is sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, will write a check for $1,000,000 to the team that comes up with a feasible, actionable business plan to address the problem.

So on Saturday in San Francisco my fellow judges and I were divided into groups of four and we heard about 12 presentations. Each group chose a winner, and the four semi-winners then presented their ideas again to a larger group. One of the four was then selected to attend a two-month intensive working session along with the winners from the other Hult locations – Shanghai, London, Dubai and Boston – over the summer. The five regional winners will then take the stage at CGI in September to compete for the million dollars.

During the long process, I was amazed at the breadth of ideas – new payment systems that redistribute income to allow for the more consistent purchase of food; technology solutions that enable information sharing across a mobile platform to better match supply with demand and vice versa; innovative food distribution systems that create jobs and offer education on hygiene and nutrition. The ideas were seemingly endless, and each was delivered in a 10 minute presentation by a group of well-rehearsed, smart, and fabulously diverse group of impassioned young people.

Not only did the Hult Prize reinforce for me that there are people – a whole generation of them – who want to make the world a better place, but that it takes hundreds and perhaps thousands of ideas to find solutions that might work. Passing the buck (having the “I have no idea” attitude) and living with the belief that just because you aren’t responsible for creating something doesn’t mean you can’t help change it, is not acceptable anymore. Together we made this world, and together we must remake it again.

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