Anatomy of an Accelerator – Hult Prize Finalists Gain Traction
A Magnet for Social Entrepreneurs
Dedicated to ‘solving the most pressing social challenges on the planet’, the Hult Prize is a magnet for social entrepreneurs. It was recently named one of the top five ideas changing the world by President Bill Clinton and TIME Magazine. The program is fueled by the Clinton Global Initiative, intense competition, and an attractive prize.
Ten thousand college and university students from around the world apply to pitch their ideas at one of six regional events that take place in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, Shanghai and online. The finalists then convene in Boston for a 6 week Accelerator program, where they work to launch their business via access to mentors and advisers, and cultivating partners and funding sources. In September, the teams travel to New York and make their final pitch at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting. President Clinton, along with CGI Meeting attendees select and award the Hult Prize winner.
My role is to cover the teams from Boston to New York and beyond. Today’s report is:
The Anatomy of an Accelerator
Monday mornings start off with a focused training session followed by exercises and break out sessions — all designed to force and further the self-examination and fine tuning of each team’s purpose and pitch for funding. It’s not just any funding. The winning team receives 1 million dollars when they win the Hult Prize.
Dr. Hitendra Patel knows that success never comes easy. Patel is the Managing Director of the IXL Center and a professor at Hult International Business School. As a passionate and pragmatic teacher, he breaks down the challenges and requirements of the second week. He sets a fast pace and engages everyone like they’re part of his team. He encourages, guides, instructs, invites questions and then turns the group over to associate Julius Bautista, who sets up a critical exercise and transitions the morning to team break out sessions.
Mindset and Mood
The mood of the six finalist teams is fluid — from ready to questioning and open, to slightly anxious and alert. These are smart, sincere, introspective and socially intelligent individuals and teams. They’re required to be both risk takers and realists and I believe that you could shuffle them and recast them, and come out every time with winners in the making. The mood is not as much competitive as it is highly focused on refining their own thinking and pitch.
A mentor once coached me on the subject of competition. He urged me not to focus on the opposing team but to focus on my job on the field. This is precisely the mood on Cambridge street. Even though curiosity and comparisons are inevitable, it’s rather fleeting. Since their goal is to win, there is no time to lose.
Regrouping Behind Closed Doors
Now behind closed doors, they are focused, all business, asking of each other the tough questions of the day designed to reconstruct their thinking and make themselves and their business truly feasible, sustainable, and in a word: fund-able.
Through the window looking in, I want to be them. But when it comes to delivering a winning pitch, compelling enough to be rewarded with a million dollars, they may for a moment prefer to be me, behind a lens. But this is why they’re here: to practice, practice, practice.
The Art of the Pitch: listen, learn, refine
It’s Friday afternoon and one by one, each finalist team walks into a theater-style classroom at the Hult campus in Cambridge and begins pitching. It’s meant to be true practice, meant to discover strength and weakness in each team.
The judges listen, make notes and, one by one, offer no holds barred feedback. Are they encouraging, even complimentary? Yes. Do they hone in on what is unclear, unconvincing, even potentially undermining? Yes again. From my vantage point, the questions and comments are sharp and spot on. It’s very candid feedback which tugs at loose threads – – at the same time unraveling and asking for definition. What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger, or so it feels.
These six teams all have powerful ideas. And survival of the fittest depends on failing fast, rethinking and rebuilding. Two weeks down, four to go.
Time for Fun and No Time to Rest
These inventive entrepreneurs cannot be consumed with the tasks at hand at all times; and Hult Prize founder and CEO, Ahmad Ashkar, makes sure they see, sense and taste Boston via field trips, restaurants, museums, historic sightseeing, and major league sports — all of which is intertwined with high level access to extraordinary business resources.
For example, Thursday night, the group met for casual dinner in the boardroom of law practice Foley Hoag, where they learned and asked questions about the complexities and legalities of forming and running start-ups.
For the sake of balance, on Friday night — after a full afternoon of pitching again to a new group of guest judges — Ashkar reserves a table at The Brahmin. In the heart of Boston’s Back Bay, their ‘accelerated’ week pauses… for some nightlife and to celebrate a team member’s birthday.
All of this together makes for very full days but I haven’t seen anyone remotely resisting. It’s a juggling act for sure yet, given the nature of entrepreneurship, I don’t see it being more predictable or simple, do you?
Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes reporting…up next a look at the value of the Hult Prize Accelerator Coaches and coaching strategies.
For more stories and team profiles – CLICK HERE for great writing — from GRASP’s Guy Viner on the race for $1 million.
image credits: hult.edu; ixl-center.com
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Mari Anixter is Managing Editor for Innovation Excellence. She is a communications professional, and recently relocated to the Boston area.
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