The PRME Innovation Challenge – Through the Eyes of the Students Involved

The PRME Innovation Challenge regularly brings together students from PRME Advanced schools to work with business to build sustainable business solutions addressing their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)/ corporate social responsibility objectives. In 2018 teams of students worked with Manitou Group on two real-life sustainable development challenges. In 2017, several teams of students worked on the Breakthrough Innovation Challenge, a collaboration between PRME and the UN Global Compact that brought together young professionals from leading multinational companies to evaluate disruptive technologies. I had the chance to speak with a few of the students who were involved in this first challenge about their experiences. Jose Ignacio Barrientos was part of the team from INCAE and Mahira Khan from the IILM Team in India.

Why did you decide to get involved and company did you work with? J.Ignacio: We received an invitation email and decided to put together a team and participate. After that we receive the challenges and went through them to determine which was the best fit according with our background and we start working on it. We thought it would be a great opportunity to get more involved in sustainable development and the SDGs but also to gain possible exposure for our work. We are very competitive, so the idea to do it worldwide with other student provided an extra push to do our best.

Mahira: I decided to participate in the challenge after I attended PRME’s 4th International Conference on “Sustainable & Innovation: Key Drivers of Responsible Management.” The conference was inspired by the SDGs and held at the IILM Academy of Higher Learning, New Delhi. When we received the invitation for the Challenge after this event we thought it was the perfect way to get more involved in the topics we had just learnt about.

What challenge did you work on and why?

J.Ignacio: We worked on ENEL challenge, it was about business models that use energy to create job opportunities in remote areas. We took this challenge because I had been working on a business idea that has similar milestones based on bamboo harvesting and processing to create a supply chain with positive impact and to create opportunities in rural areas. So we had most of the work done and we decide to validate it through the Breakthrough Innovation Challenge. But in the process the added effort gave us a better development proposal using five SDGs, so positive impact and scalability became our goal.

Mahira: We went through all the challenges and finally choose to work closely on the challenge given by Sumitomo Chemical for two reasons. First, it allowed us to use the skills that we as a team. Second, working with a Japanese company was in itself a great opportunity for us because we were so influenced and driven by their culture and work ethic.

How did the process go with your team?

J.Ignacio: We were in a very demanding and difficult full time MBA at INCAE, so we decide to work an entire weekend on our proposal. We had been building up before then and doing additional research but that weekend we worked long hours to put together a strong final presentation. We only had 9 slides to get the attention of the company!

What was it like working with the companies directly?

J.Ignacio :It was a great experience. They were very demanding but also very organised. We set a working schedule and most weeks we had online meetings. Something unexpected was that we had the opportunity to meet ENELs CEO in New York.

Mahira: We had a very healthy engagement with the team of Sumitomo Chemical. At the beginning we had an introductory call so everyone could meet each other. They were easy to reach and we already had clear timelines for when we had to update them about the work progress. They made us aware of our responsibilities as Student teams and what they expected.

What benefits do you feel you as students were able to bring to the companies?

J.Ignacio: New ideas, fresh tools, knowledge and extra intercultural experience. Our team had experience and knowledge of the opportunities and needs of rural populations in Latin American countries which made our proposal stronger.

What were some of the highlights/interesting insights of the whole experience?

J.Ignacio: Networking opportunities were really important. Working with team mates from around the world including India, Philippines, South Africa was a great opportunity and we still chat. For us exposure was also a highlight because we were able to increase the credibility of our own ideas. Mahira: One of the highlights was during our regular check-in calls with the UN Global Compact coordinators. We were given a phenomenal opportunity to have a guest conference call with the Head of Sustainable Development at Novozymes. Being a Biotechnology student I was thrilled at this opportunity. Also visiting the US office of Sumitomo Chemical in New York while we were there for the Forum was a great experience and the chance to meet the company team in person. Of course attending the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit in 2017 was a highlight!

What would you change, if anything?

J.Ignacio: I would encourage PRME to continue with the challenge so other people that other students around the world like me can get involved with and make an impact. Something else I feel is very important is to let the student pitch there solutions and ideas and not just what the companies want.

Mahira: The Breakthrough Innovation Challenge was well organised. I would have loved to have more opportunities to attend UN and SDG related conferences.

Do you feel that these types of experiences are important for students? Mahira: It was a remarkable experience for me. My journey has been a golden milestone moment and I still reflect on it with a feel of pride. Getting a chance to come all the way to New York City to present our work and attend the UN Global Compact Leader Summit was a dream coming true. Each person that I met there inspired me with and their thoughts and visions still resonate in my mind. The Breakthrough Innovation Challenge has certainly been that turning point in my life.

J.Ignacio: Definitely, it’s a huge opportunity, the networking and the experience of the whole challenge is very important. Especially for me. Our solution to our challenge was an idea I had just started working on in 2017. I kept working on it and now we are an SME in Costa Rica called BambuPallet and we are going to market this year. The company is based on the idea we presented in the BICs and is about making pallets out of bamboo. In 2018 our company won three awards for innovation and sustainability, and everything started with the Breakthrough Innovation Challenge in 2017. That’s why these experiences are so important for students.

For more information about the PRME Innovation Challenges contact Nikolay Ivanov at the PRME Secretariat ivanov@unglobalcompact.org .

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