A startup accelerator for social good

UNSW students are in the running to win the Hult Prize

On a normal day I work with a variety of startups, especially in the fintech, enterprise technology and health tech spaces.

It is an amazing and exhilarating experience. But recently I had the pleasure to work as a mentor with Venturetec, mentoring a group of inspiring UNSW students from the Australian Graduate School of Management who are striving to win the Hult Prize.

The Hult Prize is a start-up accelerator with a major difference. It’s a startup accelerator for social good and it’s the world’s largest student competition.

From the 25,000 global applications received from 500 colleges and more than 150 countries this year, 300 will compete in five cities around the world for a chance to win one of six places to pitch in the finals to secure US$1 million in startup funding.

This is all about social entrepreneurship; bringing together college and university students from around the world to identify and launch disruptive and catalytic social ventures that aim to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

It’s a joint initiative by Hult University and the Clinton Global Institute. Bill Clinton set this year’s challenge to double the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban spaces and will be on stage to present the award.

The judging panel includes some heavy hitters, such as past Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus.

Introducing Bobbin

Bobbin (formerly solarweavers), comprising Ben Pask, Shalendra Ranasinghe, Lisa Shannon and Dimitry Tran, are the AGSM (UNSW) Hult Prize Finalists that are on their way to London for the Regional Finals in March.

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The objective of Bobbin is to connect women in urban slums to a source of sustainable income. There is technology involved in their social enterprise, but this is not your usual high tech.It includes a solar panel (low power), sewing machines (low tech) and a cell phone for connectivity.

Their solution includes micro-financing but they are also exploring micro peer-to-peer lending.

Bobbin’s customers will be able to sew clothes from raw materials sourced locally, with sales into existing marketplaces and a new online solution.

I asked Trey Zagante, Venturetec CEO, to comment on why he was working with Bobbin, which is a departure from his normal enterprisetech focus:

"We chose to sponsor the Hult Prize @ UNSW to support social entrepreneurs who are driven to make a positive social impact that could potentially change the lives of tens of millions of people,” he said.

“The Bobbin team have really embraced the lean startup approach of Venturetec’s incubation program, and they’ll be going into the regional finals having rigorously tested and validated their business model”.

A new online marketplace

This is about setting up a new marketplace in a country where online is not that commonplace.The product to be sold will be items of clothes. The phone’s camera will be used to snap the item, which will then be placed onto a new online marketplace.

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Bobbin has partnered with technology provider Arcadier to develop their marketplace.At first I was surprised that Arcadier, which operates in advanced next-generation marketplaces, would be able to service outside of their comfort zone, but they are clearly comfortable in the social enterprise space, which can require less sophisticated technology.

Clearly there is a major assumption around when a tipping point that will see a move from 2G phones and increasing availability of smartphones. In developing world countries we are starting to see rapid adoption of cheap Android-based handsets.

Bobbin’s other partner is Barefoot Power, which deploys solar panels and has a great existing penetration of markets in countries like Kenya.They are also in talks with the Kenyan Federation of Women Entrepreneurs.

A startup empowering women

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There is an underlying belief that education is the answer to breaking the poverty cycle.

The stated goal of Bobbin is to double the income of people living in crowded urban spaces. Bobbin is focused on helping women who are on home care duties with few prospects of working outside of the home to generate an income.

“Empowering women may be the single most poverty reducing factor in developing economies which can lead to significant macroeconomic gains.It is shown that women are also more likely than men to invest more of their income into their children’s education,” says Lisa Shannon.

The model is deliberately simple to ensure that it ill work. They create a small craft industry for eight women to work in a sewing circle, with a leader to use phone to manage logistics and sell in the marketplace.

The provision of solar power to use the sewing machines also brings light and power for houses that would otherwise not have them. So the impact of this is remarkable.

The secret sauce

It’s not technology; in actual fact, Bobbin’s secret sauce is ‘care’.

The secret sauce is Bobbin’s connection with community to enable the skills that already exist within these communities.It is also anticipated that when community pride is harnessed the default on microfinance loans will be minimal.

With care and connection, these small steps to create new work will start to change the world one solar panel and sewing machine at a time.

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