By Megha Bahree
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on OZY.com and is reprinted here with permission.
Ahmad Ashkar has collaborated with the Clinton Global Initiative to create philanthropic change in business and innovation. Photo Credit: Sammy Dalal for OZY.
A million dollars to solve the world’s problems, one issue at a time.
This is the spirit of many a fellowship, grant and philanthropic endeavor. It’s the lofty mandate touted by equally as many billionaires seeking to become the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Turns out becoming a successful philanthropist is one of the toughest gigs around.
That’s what 32-year-old Ahmad Ashkar has discovered as the chief executive of the world’s largest annual student competition — the Hult Prize — funded by Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult and backed by Bill Clinton. The inner workings of a massive philanthropic organization are a surprising labyrinth of finance, networking, good intentions, frustrating controversy, and, yes — glamour and power. Which is why it makes sense that the guy running the whole show is a former financier with an exceptional talent for yanking on the coats of the powerful.
In just the four years since the prize’s inception, Ashkar has not only gotten Hult’s attention, but also pulled the Clinton Global Initiative on board and earned the public kiss of approval from the former president: “I love the Hult Prize,” says Clinton in a promotional video. “You, in so many ways, represent the future.”
Palestinian-American Ashkar might never have landed in the world-saving business if not for the financial crash, which took him away from a New York investment job and back to student life at the Hult International Business School.
There, hearing Chuck Kane, the president of One Laptop Per Child, talk about founding businesses that would create products for the poor, Ashkar got inspired to organize a small competition between business schools. The winning team got to work with Kane’s organization.
Ashkar got a call from Hult’s office inviting him behind the curtain to meet with the billionaire. Ashkar was spending his final semester of school interning with HSBC in Dubai. He packed three days of clothes and was whisked away in a chartered plane to Lucerne, Switzerland, where, over a three-hour dinner at Hult’s home in the Grand Hotel, the men discussed life as a Palestinian and Ashkar’s ideas on how to get business school students to set up companies that solve some of the world’s pressing problems. (Hult didn’t respond to a query for comment.)
Hult asked Ashkar what was missing. “I was like, ‘A million dollars would be nice,’” Ashkar says. “And he looks at his CFO and says, ‘Done.’” He left Switzerland with an endowment in his pocket, Hult’s name on the prize and enough money to make his student daydream real. But in a world of competing causes, Ashkar would have to jockey for attention. One way to get it? Bill Clinton. It took Ashkar more than a few phone calls to finagle an audience in Clinton’s court. He was offered a conference call with the then-global head of partnerships for the Clinton Global Initiative. Instead of hopping on the phone, he showed up in person, unannounced, at the office in Harlem. That meeting, which lasted for three hours, was followed by another. Four weeks later President Clinton announced that CGI was partnering with the Hult Prize.
The splashy launch was soon followed by the organization’s first controversy.
A winning team, from Cambridge University, paired up with actor Matt Damon’s nonprofit water.org. Their idea was to design and implement phone-based loyalty programs that got poor communities, which would earn families reward points when they spent money; they could reap the rewards for water. What happened next is murky: Water.org got the million dollars of prize money. The students were miffed, believing that a relationship they’d been promised had been ditched, says Cambridge team member Akanksha Hazari in an email. A Water.org rep says there was no formal agreement. The Hult family eventually gave some six figures to seed the Cambridge team’s own company, m.Paani.
For those who believe they’re “doing the world good,” as Ashkar says, a practical mishap comes with a scary realization: Doing good requires doing good work behind the scenes, or risk seeming like a public stunt for a rich person. “That was a disaster for me.”
Now, he’s switched things up: Instead of choosing straight winners, he invites a few teams to Boston to participate in an incubator. He’s resilient, and you can tell by hearing his story: a light-skinned, slick-haired room-schmoozer, he’s been an unlikely success story before. Born in America, the fourth youngest of five children, he spent his early years in the Middle East until the family moved to Kansas — to a “white guy town” — in 1991 after the Gulf War. But he earned a full football scholarship to college. And he likes weird ideas. Next up, he says he’s planning a reality show with Sony Pictures about the quest to end unemployment by funding micro enterprises. (Sony didn’t confirm.)
There’s still one looming question. Doesn’t he want to be the star? Apparently, yes. He’d like to create the first billion-dollar-company for good. “Imagine if every billionaire in the world had an equivalent of the Hult Prize,” he muses. Or if he had his own billions.