by Rebecca Kaisler

Athgo held its 4th Global Innovation Forum on “Climate Change and Constructive Entrepreneurship” at the World Bank on August 10-12th, 2011, attracting over 100 students and young professionals from around the world. Utilizing Athgo’s innovative networking program and Athgo Founder and Chairman Dr. Armen Orujyan’s “4-Pillars to Success,” participants were challenged with developing innovative business models that were environmentally sustainable, financially profitable, and socially beneficial. These concepts were presented before a panel of experienced judges, with the top three proposals being awarded venture development grants to further their growth and make their implementation a reality. Participants also benefited from the experience and advice of senior professionals from private and public industry who addressed the forum’s themes of constructive enterprise and social entrepreneurship during formal panels and informal discussions. In a surprise appearance, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank, delivered the forum’s keynote speech on the importance of social businesses, embodying the forum’s central themes.

At the opening session, Dr. Orujyan introduced participants to his “4-Pillars to Success” methodology, identifying the traits necessary to support the development and growth of successful individuals and businesses, including:

  1. Intellectual Pillar: Successful entrepreneurs draw on their unique and in-depth knowledge in order to gain the advantage over their competitors.
  2. Core Pillar: The belief that each individual is in control of his or her own destiny and is not merely a victim of his or her circumstances.
  3. Network Pillar: The formulation of meaningful and reciprocal social relationships provides entrepreneurs with a network from which to draw.
  4. Resources Pillar: Financial resources are necessary to achieve success, but entrepreneurs must possess adequate social and intellectual resources as well.

The first day’s panels kicked off to a great start, with panelists emphasizing the integral role that communities play in creating successful businesses. “Whatever your project is, it is very important that you tap into the emotional core of the local community…find out what people’s needs are. If you go top-down you are always bound to fail,” stressed Allan Marks, Partner in the Global Finance Group at Milbank. Properly engaging the community, according to Molly Tschang, Managing Director of International Programs at Cisco, includes understanding how the community operates, determining the incentive structures that drive it, and being able to embrace mistakes made throughout the process. Properly collaborating and consulting with the community prior to initiating a venture can make the difference between an enterprise succeeding and failing. Communities can also help businesses in identifying the type of service most suited to their needs.

Other speakers highlighted the importance of perseverance and initiative in being a successful entrepreneur. “The world is just full of problems and their potential solutions,” noted Jeffrey Fort, Head of Environmental Media at SNR Denton. Successful entrepreneurs are those who think independently and take the initiative to solve those problems rather than waiting for the answer to be provided for them. Perseverance was identified as being equally important to success. According to Paul Manson of SeaBreeze Power Corporation, “You have to be able to roll with the punches, have faith that your vision is correct, and accept that you cannot do it by yourself…Allow others to help you achieve your vision.”

Participants ended the first day at a reception held at the Embassy of Finland, one of the forum’s sponsors and the first LEED-certified embassy in the U.S.

The high energy continued into the second day as participants formulated their business models and engaged speakers on the topics of networking and investment. Having traveled from the Republic of Macedonia to speak, Minister of Information Society Ivo Ivanovski highlighted the role that networking plays in creating future opportunities. “There is no better way of succeeding in life than having close friends who can open the door for you,” he said, promoting the use of new social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter in expanding one’s network. While these technologies make it easier to communicate with others, John Shegerian of Electronic Recyclers International cautioned against relying on them entirely. In an era of instant communication, he stressed that “the real face-time that you can give to people is more highly valued than ever before.”

President and CEO of nBrilliance Navneet Singh Narula, helped inspire participants through his own ‘rags to riches’ story. “95% of our life is finding out who we are and what we are here for; 5% is actually living it,” he said, encouraging attendees to discover their passions and follow their dreams even if doing so requires them to leave their comfort zone. He attributed his own success to the “Five Ps”: passion, perseverance, patience, perspectives, and prayer.

At a panel moderated by Dr. Orujyan, a diverse range of speakers discussed the role that investment plays in encouraging innovation. Naila Chowdhury, CEO of Grameen Solutions, shared the inspirational story of the women of Bangladesh who, through small private loans, have been able to create profitable businesses and dramatically improve their quality of life. Drawing from experience working at the opposite end of the investment spectrum was Francis Beland of the X Prize Foundation and Dr. Mark Mykityshyn from Arcadia Capital Partners. Both companies incentivize innovation by providing venture capital investments to emerging entrepreneurs, especially those who display the perseverance necessary for success. In the words of Dr. Mykityshyn, “There are many, many people who have great ideas, but…there has to be some capacity to execute that idea”

Day 3 culminated in the highlight of the conference: the innovation panels. After a morning spent finalizing their proposals, participants presented their concepts before a panel of six experienced judges from within private industry. The presentations revealed a high level of innovation by the participants, with group ideas ranging from a seed loan and bio-fuel production enterprise in Guyana, to a kid-friendly solar-powered composting receptacle. In the end, however, only three proposals were chosen to receive Athgo’s development grants.

In third place was Group 11’s U-Power concept, consisting of a dynamo generator attached to an exercise treadmill or bicycle that converts wheel energy into electricity. This would allow the user to charge their electronic devices through their own power, with the additional option to store excess energy in a lithium battery attached to the generator. “We want to inspire people to get more active and to help the environment as well,” stated the group’s spokesperson during the Q&A period.

Group 4’s emPower took second place. Drawing on the burgeoning app market for smart phones and utilizing existing technology, emPower would allow users to not only switch off appliances within their residence using their phones remotely, but also to assist them in tracking household energy consumption, making recommendations for more efficient products and practices where needed.

The winning idea was inspired by the reality that many developing countries experience severe electricity shortages, thus limiting the ability of students to study after sunset and forcing them to rely on unsustainable sources of power such as kerosene for lighting. Group 12’s SolarBrite Solutions combats this problem by providing students with a solar panel-equipped backpack. Allowed to charge during the day, the attached LED light, battery, and battery charger would allow consumers to charge electronic devices and power their homes. Both the audience and judges were encouraged by the national and international market potential of the product.

The excitement created by the innovation panels continued with the delivery of the concluding keynote speech by Dr. Muhammad Yunus. Drawing from his own experiences pioneering the groundbreaking Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Dr. Yunus emphasized the invaluable role that social businesses can play in delivering goods to communities and improving their overall welfare. Social businesses are not charities and the goods they deliver are not free. “A charity dollar never comes back; a social business dollar has an endless life,” said Dr. Yunus, because the profit that the business makes is ultimately re-invested back into the company whereas the purchasing power derived from charity money can only be used once.

The forum proved to be a huge success, with several participants describing it as “life changing” and “inspirational.” Many expressed the desire to develop their business models further in the future. Embodying the central themes of the event, attendees networked with each other over Facebook, Twitter, and Athgo backed new virtual project development platform, ensuring that the lessons learned and the innovations created throughout the forum will continue far beyond its conclusion.