By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Shital Somani riveted the audience instantly, beginning her 90-second pitch at the Dell Social Innovation Challenge awards by announcing that 25 percent of farmers in India commit suicide. Because of lack of refrigeration, 20-to-30 percent of their harvest is spoiled, leaving them in perpetual poverty. Solar Conduction Dryer, Somani’s team’s entry in the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, would allow farmers to dry that produce, saving it for up to a year, without relying on India’s unreliable power grid.
That was the entry that won not only Dell’s Grand Prize of $60,000 but also an additional $1,000 from the audience choice prize.
More than 25,000 students from 100 countries submitted 2,600 projects in the Dell Challenge in 2013, an increase of 60 percent over last year.
Other winning entries included Foot Soldiers, a company that provides inexpensive sandals for people in Bangladesh made from recycled tires. There are nearly 50 million impoverished people in Bangladesh who can’t afford shoes. Walking barefoot subjects them to numerous diseases. Foot Soldiers can produce durable rubber sandals for these people for only $1 a pair. That entry won $40,000 in seed money.
Third place winner was Good Benefits, an American company that creates easily-administered benefits packages for businesses to allow employees to funnel money into causes they believe in. That company earned $20,000.
The other two finalists were Semka, from Mexico which uses blood tests as a non-invasive alternative to biopsies for cancer patients and Sunride, a German team which creates community crowdsourcing for solar power. Each of those teams received $10,000. The company also offered ten outstanding innovation awards worth $5,000 and 25 matching grants for the Start Something That Matters fund.
In total Dell gave $350,000 in seed money to entrepreneurs tackling everything from medical problems to energy consumption and pollution—sometimes all at once. In addition, the company provided hours of mentoring to 250 semi-finalists.
Suzi Sosa, director of the challenge, emceed the event which had a tremendous cast of speakers.
Blake Mycoskie, founder and Chief Shoe Giver of Tom’s Shoes, told his story of learning that children in Argentina couldn’t go to school without shoes, but many couldn’t afford shoes. Already a serial entrepreneur, he decided to start a for-profit business wherein one pair of shoes was given away for each pair that was purchased. The ratio, he explained, was decided on because “I’m not very good at math.” He told a story about asking a woman in an airport about her shoes—Tom’s Shoes—and having her nearly accost him with his own company’s story. His main message to the entrepreneurs: Don’t worry about marketing. If you’re doing something good, your customers will spread the word for you.
Roy Spence, fresh off a plane, quoted Aristotle, Lao-tzu and George Bernard Shaw, who he described as a “weird ass” : This is the true joy of life, the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Spence’s Texas accent may have given a different flavor to the quote than it had coming from the Irish Shaw. Spence told the entrepreneurs to follow his mother’s advice not to waste time being average at what they weren’t good at but to excel at what they were great at.
Peter Frumkin, formerly of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas spoke on having dreamed up the Dell Challenge with Tom Meredith, over lunch at the Roaring Fork in 2007.
“We were just going to have a little University of Texas challenge,” he said. “But Tom wanted to go bigger. By the time lunch was over it had gone all over the U.S. I was afraid to order coffee. And sure enough by the time the coffee came, it was a global competition. I’m so delighted you have taken it to such an incredible height.”
The evening concluded with a concert by social activist, Somalian musician K’Naan.