Sunday Conversation with Rifat Mursalin

Students work on plan to help people thousands of miles away

At Emory University, four undergrads are busy finalizing their business plan to elevate the incomes of millions of people some 8,500 miles away. Senior Rifat Mursalin, along with sophomores Safiyah Bharwani, Rachel Citrin and Victoria Umutoni, have advanced in the Hult Prize, an international competition challenging students to create start-up businesses to tackle the world’s toughest problems. The students will travel in March to Shanghai, China, to present their plan aimed at helping the citizens of Dhaka, Bangladesh. If they keep advancing, they could end up with $1 million in seed money to make their idea a reality.

Q: What is the Hult Prize?

A: Hult International Business School, in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, decided it would be useful for undergraduate and graduate students to create business start-ups that could address global issues. Every year, former President Bill Clinton issues a challenge. This year, the challenge is to build sustainable and scalable social enterprises that double the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban places.

Q: Where did you even start?

A: We decided we first needed to look at where we would like to focus. Something that works in one place might not work in another. We decided on Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. My parents and I are from there originally and I know the culture very well. I also know some of the needs that exist in that urban space. We also want to create a business that works with the existing infrastructure, as opposed to reinventing the wheel. Even though Bangladesh is still a developing country, it thrives on entrepreneurship with an established culture of micro-finance and small businesses. The culture of Bangladesh and India are similar. We can scale whatever we do in Dhaka to India.

Q: What is your idea?

A: The creation of a social entrepreneurship incubator. We truly believe that the people who can best solve issues that affect urban spaces are the people who live there. Our business would accept different ideas and applications and offer mentorship, financial resources, or whatever is needed to ensure the proper implementation of the ideas.

Q: You are still formulating your idea?

A: We are in the final stages of solidifying the details of our business plan. We have been in conversations with several organizations in Bangladesh and India, and are working toward forming partnerships with them. If we win the competition, Hult will give us the funding and resources to implement our project.

Q: Who are your teammates?

A: One of our strengths is that we are extremely diverse, both academically and culturally. Safiyah, a political science and economics major, is of Indian descent, grew up in Texas, and has spent time volunteering in Mombasa, Kenya. Rachel, a political science and Middle Eastern and South Asian studies major, is a graduate of Atlanta’s Grady High School and spent a year studying Arabic in Oman. Victoria is majoring in human health and anthropology, and is from Rwanda. I grew up in Dhaka, graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta, and am majoring in economics and French. As a team, we speak almost 10 languages.

Q: Are you all excited about going to Shanghai?

A: Very. We got to choose from five different cities to present and we chose Shanghai because it is closest to where our idea is. At the same time, this is very intimidating. We will be going up against PhD and MBA students. Some of our teammates aren’t even 20 yet.

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