Sept. 22, 2017

Haskayne team stars in finals of $1-million Hult Prize at UN

University of Calgary team creates job-matching platform for refugees in West Africa
From left: William Akoto, Richelle Matthews, and Francis Duahn present onstage at the 2017 Hult Prize finals. Photo by Chris Wright
From left: William Akoto, Richelle Matthews, and Francis Duahn present onstage at the 2017 Hult Priz

Presenting on a stage in the iconic United Nations building in New York City for a chance to win $1 million would be a surreal moment for anyone. For Haskayne EMBA student Francis P. Duahn, it was especially meaningful.

For 15 years, Duahn was a refugee fleeing war in West Africa. He was moved around several refugee camps until he came to Canada 12 years ago. Arriving in Canada at age 27, he completed ESL, high school, an Ontario college diploma, a BSc in international relations and then started a successful shipping business before later enrolling in the Executive MBA program at the Haskayne School of Business.

On Sept. 16, the 39-year-old from Liberia and his University of Calgary teammates were one of the final six teams to compete in the Hult Prize finals in New York, aiming to win $1 million (US) to launch their company Kwado.

Pictured above are, from left: William Akoto, Richelle Matthews, and Francis Duahn present onstage at the 2017 Hult Prize finals.

Bill Clinton's challenge: Reawakening Human Potential

The 2017 Hult Prize President’s Challenge was Refugees – Reawakening Human Potential and was chosen by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Calgary won the Dubai regionals in March to qualify for the finals and compete against Rutgers, Harvard, Waterloo, York and the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico. The competition begins with 100,000 students worldwide who entered the competition.

“It was pretty overwhelming, it was pretty exciting. It’s the most opportunity I’ve had in my life,” says Duahn since his return to Calgary from New York. “From a refugee camp to the United Nations headquarters, where decisions were once made upon my life: what I ate, where I slept, what I owned, who I am because sometimes I was accepted as a refugee, and sometimes I was not. Sometimes I was stateless or homeless,” he says.

“It’s not something I dreamed about; it’s a miracle. Education and positive choices are the key to a brighter future. My mother often told me when I was a boy and I’ve always believed it.”

Business moves ahead in support of West African refugees

The University of Calgary team did not win the million-dollar prize, but Duahn and his teammates Richelle Matthews and William Akoto still plan to move ahead with their business. Kwado is a web-to-text message job-matching platform that connects refugees, slum dwellers, displaced people, and migrant workers with employers in West Africa. Both workers and employers are rated, such as other online platforms like Airbnb, so both employers and workers can have increased confidence in the person they will work with.

“Our platform builds a digital resume for these people and over time you can see, ‘ah, this guy has worked for 10, 15 employers, they have commented on his skills level, work ethic and, behaviour in general. Then you can be comfortable hiring him. Our platform also identifies skills gap among these refugees and use that information to recommend specific stills training for them. This allows them to upgrade their skills from being general labourer to skilled person, like a bricklayer,” explains Duahn.

“You can’t imagine being a refugee because you don’t know what it feels like being one, but I have been one for a good chunk of my life. The most difficult thing is getting by day by day. It locks you down in a complete cycle of poverty. You are wanting to survive every day, wanting to eat and you don’t have the chance to improve your life. Your children and next generations will be locked in the same circle of poverty until someone breaks it loose.

From left: lead developer Chris Sims, Executive MBA student William Akoto, Alumna Richelle Matthews, Prof. Bob Schulz, art director Ashley Calder, EMBA student Francis Duahn.

Left: Chris Sims, William Akoto, Richelle Matthews, Bob Schulz, Ashley Calder, and Francis Duahn.

'How many miles can you go a day to find a construction site and hope they will hire you?'

“People are limited by the distance they can walk to find jobs. For construction work for example, how many miles can you go a day to find a construction site and hope they will hire you? Even if you find a job, how sure are you the guy will pay you?”

The business idea was researched in Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda and a pilot project started in Ghana. It was so well received the team got support from Ghana’s president, 10 Ghana cabinet members, Princess Ocansey, several construction companies and skills training institutions. The company gets a small fee from the employer for each match made.  

Dr. Bob Schulz, the team’s coach from Haskayne, said the team plans to move ahead with the business.

“Rutgers won $1 million and can start and we’re looking for funding now to start in Ghana with an even more robust opportunity, in conjunction with the Ghana government,” says Schulz.

“Francis (Duahn) was all about his heart. That really helped us to win in Dubai. Francis was very credible, very believable and very passionate. He was just spectacular,” says Schulz.

Competition helps team refine business concept

Duahn says participating in the Hult Prize competition was an incredible opportunity. As a result of winning the regional finals in Dubai, the team spent seven weeks in Boston at an incubator to help refine their business to prepare them for the competition. Now that it’s complete, Duahn and team hope to meet with people who want to get involved with the startup.  

University of Calgary teams were selected for the Hult Prize regionals for seven consecutive years, won a regional pool of 12 teams four times, and won the Dubai regional in 2017 to advance to the six-team finals. In 2015, Haskayne and Faculty of Arts alumnus Taylor Scobbie won the grand prize competing for National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

Ahmad Ashkar, founder of the Hult Prize, has recently co-founded the Vatican Challenge to implement Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change. Teams accepted for this competition receive $100,000 in startup money before their accelerator and finals in Rome. Schulz says, “We’re interested and hope to play a strong part in this event.”