Four-woman team of undergraduate students compete for top prize in social entrepreneurship with help from StartUP FIU.

By: Jane Schreier Jones

The 7th Annual Hult Prize, the world’s largest student competition whose winner receives a cash prize of $1,000,000 to launch their social venture, this year challenged participants to build a sustainable, scalable start-up enterprise. The emphasis in the 2017 competition is to develop a product or service that will restore the rights and dignity of 10 million displaced migrants, including refugees, by 2022.

An all-female team of four undergraduate students from Florida International University (FIU) formed the social venture called WeWomen and emerged as the winners of the Hult@FIU competition on December 9, 2016. The win secured them a spot in the Hult Prize’s Boston Global Regional Finals and Cohort 2 of StartUP FIU’s Empower Accelerator Program.

“We’re thrilled to be competing in Boston and are grateful for all the support from the StartUP FIU team as well as our mentors, advisors, and professors,” says team member Dorothy Peck. StartUP FIU, which is sponsoring the WeWomen team in Boston, is an initiative to develop and foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Cohort 2 of its Empower Accelerator Program is designed to help FIU students, faculty or staff and early-stage startup entrepreneurs create and grow their traditional or social businesses.

“Being part of The Empower Accelerator has been awesome,” said Peck, speaking of the program which started late January with 20 teams in its second cohort. “None of us on the team are business majors, so the super intense learning has been extremely valuable.”

The diverse women of WeWomen are: Abeer Albarghouthi, a junior in biomedical engineering originally from Palestine; Isra Ibrahim, a junior in biological sciences originally from Sudan; Peck, a junior in international relations originally from the United States; and Allicia Rolle, a senior in sociology with a certification in women and gender studies originally from the Bahamas.

“It’s exciting to see women from different countries and different majors coming together to develop a sustainable business to provide real help for refugees and other displaced migrant women,” says Daniela Cadena, who oversees social entrepreneurship for StartUP FIU and has been the team’s advisor since October 2016.

Restoring dignity, empowering refugee women

WeWomen is dedicated to solving a real problem for millions of displaced migrants: the lack of feminine hygiene products in refugee camps. Their solution is using leaves from banana trees to produce environmentally friendly menstrual pads.

“Menstruation is stigmatized in many cultures,” said Peck. “The pads are also expensive and not seen as a necessity in households where men make all financial decisions.” Women and girls can often miss 50 days from work and school every year, a burden inconceivable to these students who grew up in the United States and the Bahamas. The issue is particularly acute in refugee camps where women have resorted to using soiled rags or garbage that can sometimes lead to toxic infections.

“And when periods are seen as a burden, women are seen as a burden,” thundered Peck during WeWomen’s business pitch on Saturday in front of a panel of five judges and peer teams.

The team’s business plan involves buying machines invented by an engineer in India to make the pads and obtaining banana leaves from Northern Colombia, another region with displaced migrant women, and employing them to prepare the leaves for export. WeWomen would sell its product in the U.S. market using proceeds from the sale to heavily subsidize the product in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East.

Entrepreneurs don’t give up

Out of 50,000 applications and 65 Boston Global Regional teams, WeWomen narrowly lost its bid to be named one of the six finalists to Arizona State University’s team. “It doesn’t end here. It’s not a linear path, but entrepreneurs never stop,” said Cadena, who traveled with the team.

Ultimately the Rutgers University team won the Boston Regional Hult Prize competition earning them a spot to pitch for the top cash prize in September.

“I am extremely proud of WeWomen for taking FIU further than ever before at Hult Prize,” said President Mark B. Rosenberg, who followed the competition from Miami. “They are paving the way for students to create companies to help change the world!”

The team has already regrouped since Saturday. “We will be applying for the online wildcard spot at Hult and will continue in the Accelerator until Pitch Day,” said Peck. StartUP FIU co-founder and director Bob Hacker brought the Hult Prize to FIU as a way for students to engage in social entrepreneurship. “It’s exciting to see the evolution of our students from year to year,” says Hacker, who has been teaching Social Entrepreneurship for over ten years. “This generation will change the world.”