Here’s a little challenge to tackle on the weekend: figure out, within five hours, how to deliver safe water and sanitation to 100 million people within five years.
That’s the problem that Graduate School of Management students took on, as one of 130 college teams in the second annual Hult Global Case Challenge, held on March 5. It’s also the problem whose solution put the BU team at the top of the heap.
Ravi Kolipaka (GSM’12) was thrilled when judges announced BU had won. “At that point,” he says, “the only thought I had was, ‘Wow. We beat Harvard.’”
Twice, technically—Harvard fielded two teams that day.
The GSM team now advances to the final contest, being held April 28 in New York City, where the five members will compete against other regional winners, from San Francisco, London, Dubai, and Shanghai, the cities where Hult International Business School has campuses, plus a team from an online competition. Hult will give $1 million to water.org to implement the best proposal. Winners will meet former President Bill Clinton, who will give the keynote address and present the award.
Matthew Fox (GSM’12) read about the competition in GSM’s weekly newsletter and pitched the idea to colleagues Jane Bulnes-Fowles (GSM’12) and Kolipaka. Both were game. Catherine Liang (GSM’12) and Toni Ann Louie (GSM’12) signed on to complete the team.
To qualify, each group wrote an essay about water.org, a nonprofit that helps provide access to safe water and sanitation to communities in the developing world.
“Our essay was mostly about how we believe our team’s diverse backgrounds would allow us to look at the problem from different angles,” Bulnes-Fowles says. The graduate students have a grab bag of specializations: strategy and operations, finance, and the health, public, and nonprofit sectors.
Three weeks before the competition, the team received a dozen pages of information about the global water crisis. Then, on March 5, all 31 teams in the Boston competition huddled together in the Hult International Business School, on Education Street in Cambridge, waiting for event organizers to provide details of the case. There they learned the organizers had no more information to give.
“The real shocking part of water and sanitation worldwide is that we know how to solve this problem,” Bulnes-Fowles explains, recapping what was said that morning. “The issue is really about financing these projects. It’s not about making drinking water out of sand.”
The next five hours flew by in a furious brainstorming session. All the teams delivered their presentations to organizers on locked USB drives, and as extra insurance, in emails. They divided into four heats and presented their ideas to a panel of four judges. No team saw any of the others’ presentations, giving it a “black box” feel, Bulnes-Fowles says.
Fox says he allowed himself to think his team had a chance when he saw the reaction of Charles Kane, director of One Laptop per Child, one of the judges. “He had a smile on his face when we got to the middle of the presentation,” Fox says. “After that, we felt that we really had something."
BU advanced to the final round, where the team presented alongside Harvard, the University of Virginia–Darden, and Johns Hopkins University.
Chevenee Reavis, water.org’s director of advocacy and strategic alliances, announced the winner, describing GSM’s solution as “one of those ideas that you realize after, ‘Wow, why didn’t I think of that?’”
Team members decided not to share their winning idea with the press before the final competition, but they did say it describes a way to raise $10 million per month.
Whatever happens at the final competition in April, the graduate students hope their effort will help to solve a global problem.
And if they don’t win, there’s always Plan B: “We’ve contemplated starting a business afterwards if we’re not picked,” Fox says.