St. Olaf team a finalist in Hult Prize challenge
When a team of St. Olaf College students first entered the 2019 Hult Prize entrepreneurship challenge, they were competing against 200,000 applicants from more than 120 countries.
After winning the regional final in Boston, they are now among 40 finalists competing for a $1 million prize to support their business idea.
The team — Zhanat Seitkuzhin ’22, Michael Paredes ’22, and Jakob Otten ’19 — will spend the next five weeks in London preparing for and competing in the Hult Prize semifinals. If they place in the final six teams, they will proceed to pitch at the United Nations headquarters in New York this September.
The Hult Prize organization was founded in 2009 to “inspire young people to change the world through business.” The organization issues a social entrepreneurship challenge every year and selects one winning team whose business plan best meets that global need. St. Olaf student Tanya Samiliv ’20 brought the Hult Prize challenge to campus, holding information sessions and encouraging Oles to compete. This year’s challenge was to create a sustainable business model that employs 10,000 youth by 2030 — an effort to address the fact that one in five youth around the world are neither employed, engaged in formal education, nor involved in training.
The St. Olaf team proposes to meet that challenge with Foodle, a meal preparation business that delivers meals to college students and donates meals to food insecure families. Foodle partners with community centers for access to their cooking and storage facilities. In exchange, it offers the centers weekly pre-made meal donations and meaningful, career-advancing jobs for their youth.
Foodle is the brainchild of Seitkuzhin, who noticed that his friends at large universities often lacked the time and money to prepare or purchase nutritious meals. This frequently led to poor meal choices and a reliance on fast food and junk food.
“I thought that by tackling this huge market of students with affordable and healthy meals, it would be a win-win situation for future business and students,” says Seitkuzhin, an economics and computer science major.
The Foodle team’s first step was an on-campus trial supported by the college’s food service provider, Bon Appetit, and a partnership with the Northfield Community Action Center. The 70 St. Olaf students who signed up for the trial purchased 150 meals, which enabled the Foodle team to hire a young employee from the Community Action Center network and to donate 100 premade meals.
“We’ve been extremely blessed and fortunate enough to have great early stage success,” says Otten, an economics major. “We hope that our integration and flexibility with local community institutions will help us adapt to many different places around the world.”
With an initial business plan in hand, the Foodle team worked with Margaret Bransford, the Associate Director for Entrepreneurship and Outreach in the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, to hone their strategy, and they competed in the Ole Cup, the college’s annual student entrepreneurial competition. These resources provided the team with invaluable feedback and support.
“When I first met with the Foodle team, I was impressed that they had hit on this idea that is a win-win for business and society,” Bransford says. “Entrepreneurial success depends not only on the idea, but also on the discipline of the team. They have shown that they can work hard and execute.”
Associate Director for Entrepreneurship and Outreach Margaret BransfordWhen I first met with the Foodle team, I was impressed that they had hit on this idea that is a win-win for business and society. Entrepreneurial success depends not only on the idea, but also on the discipline of the team. They have shown that they can work hard and execute.
Otten says St. Olaf’s entrepreneurial programming — and its accessibility for students — were the highlights of his time at the college, and made an impact on the team’s ability to compete in the Hult Prize challenge.
Piper Center Director Leslie Moore ’77 worked with the Foodle team on their pitch for the Ole Cup. “Working with the Foodle team was a pleasure,” Moore says. “They attended every practice, took every suggestion on board, and developed a pitch that was energetic and compelling.”
Accelerating the business plan
To take their business plan to the next level, the Foodle team will reside at the Ashridge Castle in London from July 28 to August 31 to participate in the Hult International Business School’s accelerator program. Over these five weeks, the team will participate in intensive training in business marketing, financials, management, and distribution. Each week will be dedicated to one aspect of the business, and at the end of each week the team will be expected to pitch their business and demonstrate growth and viability before a panel of judges. This same panel will ultimately pick six of the 40 teams to advance to the final Hult Prize competition stage at the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York.
Along the way, the St. Olaf students will be introduced to possible investors from around the world, and will be paired with mentors who include successful business pioneers and professors from leading colleges.
“I am personally most excited to be introduced to a large network of changemakers and to be given an opportunity to network and learn from each other,” says Paredes, an economics and political science major.
They’ll build on the experience they gained at the Hult Prize regional in Boston, where they faced competitors who held doctoral and master’s degrees from some of the world’s top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
“There were also teams who have already been running their business, and teams that brought years of experience at top companies like Google, Amazon, and PriceWaterhouseCooper,” Paredes says. “Despite these seemingly unbeatable odds, team Foodle secured the victory. This reassured me that our idea is valuable, and provided me an overwhelming sense of relief that all of our efforts and dedication had not been in vain.”
Regardless of how the team finishes in London, one thing is certain: they plan to continue their work on Foodle.
“Since the first day, all three of us have had serious intentions with this project,” Seitkuzhin says. “This means that we are fully committed to making this business a reality whether or not we win the final prize.”