How capitalism and humanitarianism can combine
The Hult Prize is one of the world’s most important competitions for social entrepreneurs. Run in partnership with the Clinton Foundation it is rapidly changing lives in some of the world’s poorest countries, and also creating companies with enormous growth and profit potential. Its founder and CEO Ahmad Ashkar tells us about the journey so far…
ESQUIRE: Where do we start with your story?
Ahmad Ashkar: My parents emigrated from Palestine to the US in the 1970s and, as the son of immigrants, the main objective is to make mum and dad proud. So I started in finance around 2002 and it was great. I spoke Arabic and was Muslim, but I was American, so I was raising money in the Middle East and bringing it into New York real estate.
So you were doing pretty well for yourself?
Yes, I got a pretty good reputation. I was 23 years old and meeting with CEOs of banks. And then, boom, it was 2008 and one of the worst financial market collapses in history. I’d been creating Islamic mortgage securities, so this was the middle of the crisis. I had to fire about 50 of my staff overnight, and I looked at my wife and said, What are we going to do now?
So what did you do?
I went to business school in 2009, to Hult. It turned out to be the best decision of my life because I met the billionaire founder, Bertil Hult. It was literally two weeks into my MBA when I heard about the idea of servicing the poor through for-good, for-profit companies, but my ‘a-ha’ moment was this: why stop at sustainability? Why can’t we bring bankers, consultants and engineers into the giving space? How come we can’t service capitalism and humanitarianism in one swoop?
That’s a powerful combination
Imagine if helping the poor can be profitable. Because then you can begin to imagine a world where there aren’t any more poor people. So the question I was asking was, how do I create a platform that gets guys like me with their rogue capitalist ideas to become humanitarians? Simple. By saying you can make money, you can get fame and I’ll put you on the cover of a magazine and so on. If we want unusual results, we need unusual suspects. So we created a platform with Bertil Hult and before I graduated we ran our own company, which is now the Hult Prize.
How did you actually come to meet him?
I went back to business school, not because I needed the education, but because I wanted the connections. We built the business, which I learned later would become an open innovation platform — it was a process of teaching and creating, not identifying. By summer 2010, I had a call from Bertil Hult. He flew me over to Switzerland and said, “Talk me through your vision”. So I did and without even hesitating I walked out of there with a cheque big enough to get us rolling for the next few years, plus a million dollars of prize money for the winning start-up.
So it all happened pretty quickly
It went from idea to acquisition in less than 10 months.
How did you get the Clinton Foundation onboard?
I literally hadn’t even graduated yet, I had a bag full of cash to hire staff, rent office space… I mean, whatever we needed, plus the institutional support of a 42,000-person company, Education First (EF), which Bertil founded, as well as Hult Business School. My thinking was that I needed all these business school students around the world to have this same ‘a-ha’ moment that I had had. All else being equal, if I told you that you could work one of two jobs: the first one helping a capitalist, the second helping the poor, but you get the same money, it would be a no brainer, right? Choosing the latter would make your family proud and your friends would think you’re really cool. So we needed to get a spokesperson who was really important and we put four names on a whiteboard: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Muhammad Yunus and Bono. After some discussion Bill Clinton was a no-brainer.
Next thing I know I’ve got a conference call scheduled at the Clinton Foundation. Rather than taking that call I showed up, telling them I happened to be in the neighbourhood when I actually came in from Dubai especially. I knew from my banking days that it’s easy to say “no” on the phone. So a scheduled 30 minutes turned into a two-hour conversation. At the end they said it would be a one-year process to decide, and I replied that I had three other names, showed them my list and said, “You’re my first stop”. They asked me to come back the next day, so I did and President Clinton’s chief of staff was there and said “What’s the big deal? We’ve got a Code Red over here, who is this kid?” Within an hour we had a commitment from Bill Clinton personally and a month later we were on stage in New York getting announced as partners with the Foundation.
Were you nervous when you first met him?
I was really nervous. I just remember his hand being so big and that he stands, like, 6’2”. I mean, I’m an energy guy and when he walks in the room he’s got so much energy to him. He knew who I was and said, “Thanks for doing this, great idea, we’re here to support you.” And he also said, “I don’t know why you guys are wasting your time hosting your event on your own, let us host it for you at our annual meeting in New York during UN week.” So we moved our entire programme into what is one of the most influential summits in the world.
How the Hult Prize has grown since then?
Firstly, universities across the US teach coursework around our for-good, for-profit model. And the Hult Prize is now at 1,000 universities around the world. This year we’ll have over 100,000 entrepreneurs competing from 100 countries.
Tell us about the companies that have won so far...
What we do is say, “Here’s a problem. Reimagine this sector, here’s your boundaries, figures for profit, go follow the business model.” And by doing that we’ve launched industry leaders in healthcare, food and transportation. [See right]. Two of them already look like becoming billion-dollar companies, and how it works is that we have a stake in them. For most venture capitalists, one in 100 is a good success rate, but our pipeline is so big, with so many young people involved, that I’m unlocking all kinds of opportunity.
And you’re in spaces where the market is huge...
Six or seven of the fastest-growing cities in the world are in Africa. And it’s simple: if you want to create a billion-dollar company, go solve a trillion-dollar problem. What bigger problems are there than healthcare, housing, access to food and efficient transportation? A lot of great businesspeople are overlooking this space and I have no idea why.
So you think it’s a mistake for businesses to think they have to choose between profit and social causes?
Yes, but society has trained us in that way. I want people to view this as an opportunity, because once entrepreneurs start competing to deliver cheap and affordable products — which you can, using economies of scale — then we can restore dignity to billions of people, and once those people have dignity our society collectively improves.