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$1M + Social Impact...'Why Not?'

So many people ask me about how I came to Kenya and inevitably the response always leads back to the Hult Prize. That's where it all started. Little did I know that a quick decision on my way to eat dinner, would radically alter the course of my life.

This was the thought process behind that decision:

$1M + Social Impact = "Why not?"

These 3 factors were what I was thinking in the split second when I decided to join the Hult Prize Challenge. I walked past the striking black banner on my way to the cafeteria. I was drawn in by the hot pink Hult Prize logo and an image of President Bill Clinton asking you ‘How would you change the world with $1M?’.

In those 3 seconds, my full thought process was: “hey-- I love social impact, and a chance to win $1M--sure, why not?!” I’m not embarrassed to admit that the initial reason I got hooked was that simple. There were no deep ponderings about how I would change the world or impact millions of lives, or becoming part of this huge movement that has transformed regular business into a engine for creating social good. I never envisioned myself actually on stage, winning. At this point, I didn’t even have an idea.

I simply thought it would be fun and it sounded like a cool opportunity. So I said yes!

Little did I know that this poster and that 3-second decision, would drastically alter the course of my life.

When I said ‘yes’ in my mind at that moment, I had no idea that 2 years later I would have spent 1 year working on the project as a student/recent grad, that I would go to Boston for 8 weeks to learn about business from Harvard and MIT professors, that I would travel twice to Kenya to a pilot with bus companies, that I would be on the stage winning $1M from President Clinton, move across the globe to Kenya and live there for 1+ years, and that me--a non-technical person would be a co-founder in a tech startup--if you had told me all this 2 years ago, I would have said NO WAY.

2 years ago, I was applying to be a community organizer and had my heart set on doing a Watson Fellowship--a $30k grant to travel all over the world conducting a personal research project. Social entrepreneurship, the idea of using business to create social impact was not yet on my radar.

I had always been interested in helping empower communities and improve people’s lives, especially after living and working in Nicaragua and Malaysia and being exposed to the lack of opportunities for women, and the challenges kids face with education in low-income communities. However, I had always thought about impact from the perspective of creating and running an NGO, working with the UN or doing Doctors Without Borders.

Even though I started my first business when I was 9 years old, I had never considered combining empowerment with entrepreneurship; I had always thought of them as separate initiatives. Until the Hult Prize. This journey has made me realize that it’s fully possible to combine both, doing good business and solving social problems at the same time is very the definition of entrepreneurship. For hundreds of years, entrepreneurs have existed to solve problems faced by people around them, in their community. Now social entrepreneurship is again making that focus front and center,and inspiring a whole generation to do things differently than how normal business has typically been done recently.

It’s been quite a journey, and I’m grateful for all the things it has taught me and is continuing to still teach me. I know whatever I do in the future will continue to be impact-centered and people focused, because once you go social entrepreneurship you never go back.

A year later, after winning the Hult Prize, the journey has started to come full circle and the time is right to begin writing about my experiences, things I’ve learned along the way, and many things in between.

I look forward to sharing this journey with you!

 

IMAN COOPER

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Baltimore, Maryland, USA

©2020 by Iman Cooper