On a stage at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the young executives of six start-up companies made their final, feverish bids to win the coveted Hult Prize. Each had formed and launched business ideas over the last year that would try to solve this year's Hult Prize challenge – improving the well-being of at least one million refugees over the next five years.
The six finalists rose to the stage from a pool of 50,000 applicants. The judges are an illustrious bunch, including Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer, Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers and KIVA president Premal Shah. They decided who wins a big blue megaphone-shaped trophy — and a million dollars in startup capital. The money comes from the Hult family, whose patriarch, Bertil Hult, founded EF Education First. The Hult Prize was formerly associated with the Clinton Global Initiative. The Initiative has ended its annual conference, so the U.N. hosted the Hult Prize for the first time this year and plans to host again next year.
One team pitched an enterprise to bring fast and reliable web services to refugees, and two companies sought to connect displaced people to jobs through apps and digital workplaces.
The winner this year is a startup called Roshni Rides, Bill Clinton announced at the end of the competition last Saturday. The former president, who began working with the Hult Prize in 2010, continued to speak but a roar of cheers drowned out his words. As he inched toward the stage, Roshni Rides CFO Moneeb Mian said in a breathless falsetto, "Oh, my God, we won."
Roshni Rides provides a private shuttle service dedicated to ferrying refugees from their homes to schools, work, hospitals and markets. "[The company] has an immediate impact and addresses one of the greatest needs, which is mobility. If you can't be mobile, you are a prisoner," says Ahmad Ashkar, the founder of the Hult Prize.
At the moment, Roshni Rides is set up in Orangi Town, a slum of 2.4 million inhabitants — the largest in the world — outside Karachi, Pakistan, that's densely populated with refugees from around Asia.
As in many informal settlements in South Asia, transportation services there are practically non-existent, says Gia Farooqi, the company's CEO. "There's no good roads. There are ambulance systems, but they're not very effective. There's not a lot of government money invested into these locations." Walking or biking is often unrealistic because of the long distances between refugee settlements and basic services like hospitals.
Even auto rickshaws, three-wheeled motorized taxis common in south Asia, are simply out of reach. Drivers often prefer to stay in the city where customers have more money. When refugees are able to flag a rickshaw, they might be forced to pay staggering prices, says Hasan Usmani, COO of Roshni Rides. "One of the women [in a focus group] wanted to take her dad to the hospital. He was having a heart attack, and they needed a rickshaw" he says. "See, the thing is, it's not necessarily the driver's fault because they're from the bottom of the [economic] spectrum as well. So, when the driver got there, he hiked the price like six times."
And people don't have any choice but to pay. "It's a classic example of someone getting taken advantage of in a vulnerable situation," Usmani says.
Looking at this situation sparked an idea in the team. The drivers aren't making enough money because there are so many of them in the city, Mian says. At the same time, millions of people in settlements outside the city need transportation but don't have options. "As supply chain majors, we saw this as a huge inefficiency. [Seeing] it was heartbreaking, but we stepped back and we realized this is just a huge logistical problem, and we can solve it by making small adjustments in the market," Mian says.
The team originally wanted to create a solar-powered, electric rickshaw company. But instead, for their pilot project they turned to employing existing rickshaw drivers and using their taxis to create ride-sharing service. By giving the drivers set routes, like a bus, running between pick-up points in a refugee settlement directly to designated points of interest like a market or a hospital, Usmani says they create a transportation network catered to refugee needs.
By filling the rickshaw's three seats with passengers and scaling up to serve more riders, Roshni Rides can charge passengers half the price of a typical rickshaw ride — 80 rupees or $1.20 — and still pay their drivers a salary much higher than what they made as an independent driver. Where an independent driver might pick up an average of eight passengers per day, a Roshni Rides driver gets about 40, according to the team. Most important, the service can make resources like health care, education and job opportunities accessible to refugees who could scarcely reach them before, Farooqi says.
The team developed the idea for Roshni Rides only over the last year, but Usmani says they'd been working together for years. The four co-founders met three years ago at Rutgers University when the company's CMO, Hanaa Lakhani, suggested they work together to compete for student business prizes. The quartet won a student competition every year until Lakhani graduated in 2016.
Then, Lakhani heard about the Hult Prize and left her post-graduation job at a bank to get the team back together for one more round. The Hult Prize's ethos of social entrepreneurship — for-profit businesses creating solutions for social problems — appealed to them immediately.
"I think social entrepreneurship and Islam go hand in hand," says Farooqi. "Islam is about being the best person you can be every day and doing the most good."
"This is a faith-based team. Incorporating our faith makes what we do that much more passionate," Lakhani adds.
When Clinton announced this year's challenge would be aimed at refugees, "that's when we got really serious about it," Farooqi says. "Trump was elected, and there was a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis. The stories in the news reminded us of stories that our grandparents and parents told us. As four Muslim-Americans, we're connected to our global Muslim family. Everything that happens to them hurts [us] as well."
All four co-founders of Roshni Rides are Pakistani Americans who are Muslim. And they're hearing from their fellow Muslims about the million dollar prize they won. "Some of the messages [I'm] getting are just like, 'you don't know how impactful it is to see four Muslim-Americans up there on that stage representing the United States in today's climate.' That's empowering to a lot of people, and I can't be more humbled to be in this position," Farooqi says.
In the coming years, Roshni Rides hopes to use the prize money to expand the company. By 2022, they aim to have a fleet of 1,200 rickshaws across south Asia and serve 2.2 million refugees.
If they meet that goal, the company is projected to make a profit of over $5 million a year through advertising revenue and fares. But before all that, "I think we need like a minute to soak in the gravity of what just happened [Saturday] night," Lakhani says. There were a lot of sleepless nights working up to the competition finals, Mian adds. A little rest would be nice.
Freelance science writer Angus Chen is on Twitter @angRchen