June 1, 2017

Passion and persistence yield results in international social enterprise competition

Cumming School master’s student Hena Qureshi and her Hult Prize team offer creative solution to refugee housing issue
Hena Qureshi, a master's student at the Cumming School of Medicine, says three factors made a difference to their team in the competition: a great multidisciplinary team, accomplished mentors, and expertise from the outside to lean on.

Hena Qureshi, a master's student at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Imagine piling atop your graduate studies the trifling task of developing a startup aimed at doubling the income of 10 million people living in slums, or one that restores the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees within the next five years. Why would you take that on? And where would you even begin?

Those refugee and income questions were the pressing social issues to which the international $1-million Hult Prize Competition was seeking innovative solutions, in its 2016 and 2017 challenges. The quest for university teams is to build a social enterprise — for-profit, sustainable and scalable startups — that address a grand challenge. Hena Qureshi, a master’s student in health economics at the Cumming School of Medicine, answered the call, taking part in University of Calgary teams both years.

As to why she took on the challenge, Qureshi says what drives her is a desire to a make a difference in her community, to disrupt the current system and make it better. “My path might seem disjointed — with school and my charity work and this competition — but that passion to contribute fuels everything.”

And as for where to begin, Qureshi says it helps to have a great multidisciplinary team, accomplished mentors, and expertise from the outside to lean on.

A history of Hult Prize successes

Last year’s University of Calgary Hult Prize team tackled the issue of raising income in crowded urban spaces, and made it to the regional competition in Dubai.

Qureshi’s Hult Prize team this year included fellow University of Calgary students Sultan Khetani and Yangyang Fang, and alumna Salimah Kassamali, BA’14. They worked over several months to address the Hult Prize refugee resettlement question, and made the decision their social enterprise, Co-Fuge, would focus on housing.

“We have all been touched by the refugee experience, whether through our work or personally,” says Qureshi, who was a Scholar’s Academy member. “We knew most our competitors would tackle the issue by addressing language barriers. We decided to tackle a more complex and much needed issue for refugees, which was housing.”

Co-Fuge provided a platform to connect refugees and landowners, offering a tax break in return for slightly reduced rent. The team’s pitch got them as far as the regional finals in San Francisco in March along with 60 other teams, quite an accomplishment given there are nearly 20,000 prize entrants every year from around the world.

Hena Qureshi, second from left, with other members of this year's Hult Prize team from the University of Calgary, from left: Salimah Kassamali, Yangyang Fang and Sultan Khetani.

Hena Qureshi, second from left, with, from left: Salimah Kassamali, Yangyang Fang and Sultan Khetani

“With the feedback we received there, and some outside expertise from some very helpful people, we’ve taken a bit of a pivot on the idea now, looking at improving the housing situation with students by focusing on peer-to-peer connection,” Qureshi says.

Reacting to feedback by adapting, persisting, and seeking outside expertise seems to be integral to Qureshi’s approach to social enterprise. “Perseverance, being resourceful and open to change are key ingredients to have for success and growth.”

Building a better business through mentorship and collaboration

That outside expertise came in the form of senior leadership at the university, the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and tax experts. Team member Yangyang Fang, former vice-president (external)  for the Graduate Students’ Association, reached out to her broad network, including members of the university’s Board of Governors.

“I am so impressed with the willingness of our university’s senior leadership to support students in their initiatives,” she says. “When you come to them with an idea that’s innovative and new, even when it may not have anything to do with your academic studies, they respond with such enthusiasm it really boosts your confidence! We’re extremely grateful for all the people that have generously offered us their time, energy, and networks.”

Fang says one of the barriers to embracing entrepreneurialism is it sounds like something you have to work hard to become. Instead, she says: “Being an entrepreneur is less about who you are and more about the mindset you take on. It’s about being open to trying out new ideas, collaborating across departments, and tackling problems by adopting different perspectives. There’s a real synergy that can result from working in interdisciplinary teams.”

As some students don’t know quite where to start their entrepreneurial journey, Fang recommends plenty of resources, including the Hunter Centre as well as Skunkworks, and the new Innovation Development Award launched in January by the GSA.

Qureshi is such a believer in the power of social enterprise that one of the primary objectives of her non-profit organization, Green Sparrow Care in Pakistan, is to teach girls and women business skills, to help them escape poverty and dependence.

“First, we provide food, clothing and shelter to the orphans we care for. Then, it’s education and skills training,” Qureshi says. “We want them to learn how to create a small business for themselves, to empower the women to be independent and self-sufficient. That’s the ultimate goal.”