Photo by: Dominick Reuter / Solve

Solve’s first annual flagship event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrapped up last week, bringing together 29 selected innovators and entrepreneurs seeking to come up with solutions to improving or eradicating some of the world’s toughest challenges such as refugee education, carbon emissions, chronic diseases and inclusive innovation.

The meeting, from May 8 to 10, opened the doors to another round of submissions, as the year-old initiative expanded its scope of challenges to “brain health,” “sustainable urban communities,” “women and technology,” and “youth, skills and the workforce of the future.” Solve also announced partnerships with Jordan’s Queen Rania Al Abdullah, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Laurene Powell Jobs, and up to $2 million in prizes.

Solve is a newcomer to the development world, but with some of its staff migrating from the Clinton Global Initiative, including its executive director, Alex Amouyel, it has a firm grounding in the field. The organization rewards selected “solvers” by connecting them with MIT professors and other experts in a “convening community,” explained Amouyel. That community then helps solvers workshop ideas, broker partnerships and develop their projects.

Solvers arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with their solutions at various stages of progress — some much further along than others. Devex talked with two solvers: Herman Marin, a co-founder of the education coding program Laboratoria, and Rama Chakaki, the founder of the refugee education crowdfunding app EdSeed. They shared their three top tips on what new and prospective entrepreneurs should consider to help take an idea and scale it to reality.

What are the needs?

In Latin America, 1 in 5 young people aged 15 to 24 are “ni estudia, ni trabaja” meaning they neither study nor work. The problem especially impacts women.

The three co-founders of Laboratoria — Herman Marin, Mariana Costa Checa and Rodulfo Prieto, all with a background in development and years of working internationally — moved to Lima, Peru, with an understanding of this reality.

“It was like, O.K., there is a lack of opportunity of work for women and we especially need young women [in the work sector]. We saw a great need for new, young talent,” Marin explained in a phone interview.

The trio, using their own funds, ran a prototype and trained 15 students in coding skills in four months, going on to connect them with companies. They quickly received attention — and investments from the company Telefonica and the Peruvian government.

With more than 50 full-time employees, the three-year-old nonprofit Laboratoria trains women in Peru, Chile and Mexico within six-months to become full-time web coders. Their 400 students have an employment placement rate of about 80 percent.

Think about how you classify yourself

Are you a nonprofit or a for-profit company? This is an important distinction and there are pros and cons to each approach, Chakaki has learned as she developed her app EdSeed, now in beta form and available for download. It connects donors, education organizations and refugee students to crowdfund for education.

In practice, a user logs in, and sees a feed of student profiles and videos. If clicked on, a student can be heard discussing his or her dreams for their education and future. The user is then prompted to sign up as an advocate, donor or to endorse the student and share their profile on social media.

“This way, a donor in America may not have heard of John Doe student in Beirut but may trust that this is a 501c3 and won’t mind donating to them knowing that 100 percent of it will cover their tuition,” she explained. “Clearly there is a problem with only 1 percent of refugees being able to gain access to higher education.”

Chakaki, the co-founder of the venture philanthropy nonprofit, and the adviser of other tech start-ups, says she has considered the benefit of an app such as this in the for-profit sector — with some caveats.

“The community would have to accept the model, because otherwise it may alienate them. I have heard this from other crowdfunding platforms that in some cases if your target is all nonprofit you will have a real challenge in justifying your transaction fee,” she explained. “We are wary working in a space where donors are skeptical about transaction fees.”

The second question is considering a long-term growth plan and prioritizing social returns over financial returns.

“That is something to consider carefully. We have seen both models succeed,” she said.

The organization has been powered by Chakaki’s self financing and support from student volunteers from Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Syria to help develop the app. The Solve meeting last week raised the possibility of some additional tech support, partnership and student funding. For now, Chakaki is planning on keeping EdSeed as a nonprofit under the, but would “explore a spin-off” if she could secure an impact investor who could help find a right financial model, she says.

Consider your partners and recipients wisely

Laboratoria is growing quickly, and expects to train 10,000 students by 2020. One key to this success is finding the right people to work with, and take part in your project, Herman suggests.

Laboratoria’s first call for full-time applicants received 2,500 prospective students. Only about 100 were accepted. Students — low income, high school graduates often as young as 18 — often start the program with little, or no work experience. But Laboratoria screens them carefully to ensure they have a strong willingness to learn, creative drive and ability to manage stress and work well with others.

A hackathon will pair them with companies, which pay a fee to Laboratoria. Students often go on to earn about $650 a month, quadrupling their previous salaries.

Finding partners on all sides — from participating companies, to local organizations that connects Laboratoria with student applicants — is challenging, but crucial.

“It is very important to identify the right profile of people who can contribute the value to our students and people who value them,” Marin said. “We are rethinking how we can do things better and that is important, to go faster, learning all the time, and with that create more value for our students and the companies that hire them.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

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