Accelerating Entrepreneurship to Change the World in Afghanistan

Posted: October 18, 2012 by Brett Smith in Ecosystem, Global, Innovation, Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship, Startup

While the Brandery’s Demo Day served as an important launching pad for organizations from around the US, many players of the Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem helped to accelerate entrepreneurship on the other side of the world in a region where entrepreneurship is not so common – Afghanistan. Over a five day period ending earlier this month, Miami University’s Institute for Entrepreneurship hosted over 60 post-graduate Fulbright students for a seminar on social entrepreneurship informally called Startup Afghanistan. The goal was to provide the best and the brightest from Afghanistan with the tools, experiences and knowledge to develop entrepreneurial solutions to some of the most pressing problems when they return back to their home country. The program was sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and administered in cooperation with the Institute of International Education.

Startup Weekend Methodology

While the Fulbright Program – the flagship international educational exchange program of the US government – offers enrichment seminars for the visiting scholars, it generally does so through traditional workshops and experiences. However, given the focus on gaining entrepreneurial knowledge, Miami convinced the US Department of State to experiment with this seminar through the use of the Startup Weekend methodology. As such, 60 Fulbright students from Afghanistan engaged in a 54-hour immersion experience of moving from idea to prototype. The Startup methodology was directed primarily through Mark Lacker and Tony Alexander. Lacker is the Altman Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at Miami, who has become a national expert in Startup Weekends and recently ran one for the national kick-off of Venture for America.  Alexander is co-founder of three start-ups including Travelers Joy, Simple Registry and Smarty Tags and a mentor at the Brandery.

Local Knowledge to the Develop Local Solutions

Guided by Lacker and Alexander, the Fulbright students, ranging in age from 25 to 60, were encouraged to offer opening pitches to solve real problems in Afghanistan. As the US Department of State held their breath for fear that no one would pitch an idea, the students displayed incredible enthusiasm and courage by pitching 39 different ideas that were organized into nine different teams. Cutting across the sectors of healthcare, education, business and energy, the students worked tirelessly – guided by Lacker, Alexander, 2nd year mentors from Afghanistan, and peer mentors in Miami’s entrepreneurship program – to develop nine business models grounded in the day to day reality of Afghanistan. After two days, the nine teams made presentations to a panel of judges including a nonprofit university, a business research center, a manufacturing business producing saffron, a low-cost marriage business, a solar energy business, a community development bank, a plastic bottle recycling business, an Afghan consulting business, and a diabetes management business. In the end, the community development bank for farmers emerged as the winning business model.

Partnering with the Cincinnati Ecosystem

While the Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Farmer School of Business of Miami University was selected to host the Fulbright Program because of the international reputation of its work in social entrepreneurship, the success of the program was greatly enhanced because of several key players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In addition to Alexander, Mike Bott (General Manager, Brandery), Johnmark Oudersluys (Executive Director, CityLink), Joe Hansbauer (Executive Director, UGive) and Richard Palmer (President, Nehemiah Manufacturing Company) shared their time and experiences with the Fulbright students to greatly advance their ideas. The goals of the seminar were to advance mutual understanding of people from different countries / cultures, to build sustainable human networks, and to gain actionable knowledge of the entrepreneurial process. Given the startup weekend methodology, the local knowledge of students and the support of the Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem, the Fulbright students have accelerated the rebuilding of their country and the changing of the world in Afghanistan through entrepreneurship.

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