Duke Team Competes for Prestigious Hult Prize

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Students Aim to Connect Slum Dwellers with Jobs

For Preeti Prabhu MIDP’16, the Hult Prize regional competition in San Francisco wasn’t her first rodeo.

Prabhu was part of a Duke team in last year’s Hult Prize competition, which seeks to launch the next wave of social entrepreneurs by awarding $1 million in seed funding to the winning team. So, when she decided to enter this year’s competition, Prabhu knew what kind of team members she needed.

“I wanted people with the combination of relevant skills, a broad network, and passion. You need passion to persist while balancing all the things Duke students take on,” she said.

She recruited economics and global health major Suhani Jalota T’16 and Parth Chodavadia T’16, who studies neuroscience and global health. They had been her teammates in last year’s mHealth@Duke Shark Tank competition, which they won with their idea for a mobile app to standardize medical care for rape victims in India.

Aashna Aggarwal T’19, who had started a nonprofit in India, rounded out the team. Prabhu also convinced Bolun Li MScGH’16 and Ashwin Dandekar ECE’16 to provide technical support.

Each year, President Bill Clinton announces the theme for the year’s Hult Prize. For 2016, the challenge was to build social enterprises that can double the income of people living in crowded urban spaces. Thousands of university students pitch start-up ideas, and about 300 teams advance to the regional rounds.

As a native of India who has worked for the United Way in Mumbai, Prabhu understands some of the challenges to employment for the city’s urban slum dwellers.

Mumbai slum residents are daily wage workers, and some travel long distances to work. To find jobs, they use middle men who charge up to 50 percent of the worker’s wages, plus more fees to the employers. Some middle men are dishonest. They simply take the money and disappear.

Approximately 73 percent of India’s urban workforce is in the informal sector, and local jobs serving local needs could employ around 40 percent of residents. Given these facts, the team saw their opportunity. They came up with an idea for an employment app called mNaukri. Naukri is the Hindi word for jobs.

During a field test in Mumbai, they found that in spite of the high use of mobile phones, the app alone was not enough. People wanted a human connection. The team trained counselors to use the app, which could filter job postings based on geography, skills and other factors. Counselors set up in kiosks, where workers could come to be matched with jobs.

The counselors were local residents, so workers would have higher trust in them. mNaukri would charge the worker only 5 percent of wages. More workers could find jobs nearby, cutting down on commuting time and cost.

“It would let the community facilitate change,” Prabhu said.

As a part of the Hult Prize competition, students must run a successful crowdsourced fundraising campaign. Find out more about the mNaukri effort here.

Originally published on the Sanford School of Public Policy website