2013-08-05

Co.Exist

The Contest For Social Entrepreneurs With No New Ideas Comes Up With New Ideas After All

The D-Prize was supposed to reward people who solved distribution problems for existing solutions. But too many good ideas came out of the woodwork…

When the D-Prize was announced a few months back, we called it a contest for social entrepreneurs with no new ideas. Contestants didn’t need to come up with a new technology or kind of intervention—the D-Prize prompt gave it to them—they just needed to figure out a scalable plan for distribution.

But the six winning ideas weren’t quite what that prompt suggested. Three are already-launched businesses, and of the other three, two are for projects not on the D-Prize’s original list (clean-burning cook stoves and tablet-based learning assessments).

Nick Fusso explains it like this: "We realized through the process that we were looking for extraordinarily promising entrepreneurs—so it made sense that many proposals were unique and that not all perfectly fit with our original vision."

That said, at least one winner does hew to that vision. "Watch Me Go" is scheduled to launch in October as a pilot program, paying for 100 girls to attend high school (which the D-Prize cites as helping to avert unplanned pregnancies), and scaling up to 10,000 girls in the next two years. The basic approach is a crowdfunding model, with details still under development. Its creator, Katie Wood, is currently buried in legal papers, figuring out how to launch such an enterprise. "I have no experience in this, and I really don’t even know anybody who has done this," says Katie Wood.

Wood quit a job at the World Bank and traveled around South America and Africa for nine months until she landed in Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi, Kenya. "It was this particular school, and actually even more specifically the 8th grade girls," says Wood. She found them ambitious, self-assured and clear on what they wanted, but facing a huge financial hurdle to get what they wanted in the form of secondary school tuition. (Secondary education isn’t free in much of the developing world.)

Wood was back in the United States, on her computer, about to buy a flight to return to Kenya to figure out how to make secondary education free, when she came across the D-Prize contest and made a quick change of plans. "I didn’t go to Africa and instead developed this idea," she says.

She believes the crowdfunding model could have a larger reach than any initiative at a single school. ("Watch Me Go" will begin by partnering with 10 primary schools, identifying 100 students, and scale up from there.) And the D-Prize does provide her with a very small, $20,000 investment to get off the ground.

The big question for her—and for the D-Prize concept—is whether the best way to execute a proven intervention is to hand it over to someone implementing it for the first time.

"I’m not sure there is an advantage," says Wood. "I think I’d be in a better position if I had some experience."

On the other hand, it’s essentially a venture capital model, where even a single business delivers on its mission, that mission’s ambition could mean a very sizable success. "That’s a huge amount of girls," says Wood. "We’re going to see how things go. We can only expand as fast as donations come in on the website."

Wood will be creating that website in the next month, before she flies to Kenya.

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