Last September, Francis Duahn and teammates from the University of Calgary stood on stage at the United Nations as finalists in the $1-million (U.S.) Hult Prize for social innovation.
They didn't win. But that did not stop Mr. Duahn and another team member from pursuing their idea for a web-to-text message platform that connects employers and itinerant workers in West Africa.
Not winning the Hult prize – a year-long competition that attracts business and other students from 100 countries to solve a pressing global social issue – seems like a bump in the road given the challenges overcome so far by Mr. Duahn, a 39-year-old executive MBA student at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.
The road to the Hult final, where Mr. Duahn and other contestants hobnobbed with world leaders, including former U.S. president Bill Clinton, began in trauma in Liberia.
Mr. Duahn was 11 when his West African country's first civil war began in 1989, with his father seized by an opposing tribe. When rebels attacked his school, Mr. Duahn escaped with one younger brother while another was killed by a stray bullet. Their mother, they were told, had been killed in the general melée. (The report turned out to be false. Years later, by chance, she and her surviving sons were reunited.)
For the next 16 years, with little access to formal education, Mr. Duahn says he and his surviving brother shuttled between refugee camps in Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
"There was constant movement around for survival," he says of his refugee experience. "We were constantly worrying about what we were going to eat for the next day. Going to vocational school or anything like that was hard because you needed recommendations."
In 2005, then 27, Mr. Duahn and his brother arrived in Canada under a U.N. refugee resettlement program. He quickly pursued education as a way forward, learning English and acquiring high school and college credentials.
"I didn't see any light at the end of my tunnel until I came to Canada," he says. "Canada has been a light that has shone upon my life in the middle of darkness."
In 2010, he started a business shipping goods between Canada and Africa, opening an Alberta branch in 2012. Though turned down by Haskayne for undergraduate business studies, Mr. Duahn was accepted into the University of Calgary's international studies program, signed up for as many business courses as possible and graduated with a degree in 2016. He started a second company, a Calgary-based cleaning company, to finance his education.
He applied again to Haskayne, this time for an executive MBA and had both the academic credentials and work experience to win a place in the class of 2016.
"Every 'no' is one step toward a 'yes,'" he says, explaining his determination to study business.
"Understanding business is most important to me because it is the means by which I can help millions who find themselves helpless or don't have the opportunities I had," adds Mr. Duahn, who graduates next year.
Haskayne strategic management professor Robert Schulz, a long-time faculty advisor to student case competitions, has coached previous Hult Prize teams that made it to regional finals.
For this year's Hult challenge – a high-impact idea that assists refugees – Dr. Schulz recruited students from his executive MBA class: Mr. Duahn, a former refugee; Ghana-born William Akoto; and Tajikistan-born Medina Dehatee, who previously worked for the U.N. He also brought in Calgary graduate Richelle Matthews, with 10 years of experience in international development in Africa and Bangladesh.
Ms. Matthews, now program manager of strategic partnerships at Innovate Calgary, a technology transfer and business incubator centre at the Calgary university, recalls the long gestation period for what became the team's project, dubbed Kwado."We pivoted seven times before we landed on our final idea," she recalls.
After a winning pitch in Dubai ahead of 250 teams, members of the Calgary team spent the final leg of the Hult Prize competition in Boston, where the six finalists spent seven weeks in an accelerator program before the final presentation in New York.
"Through the process you continually look at what is the good idea and ultimately who will pay," says Ms. Matthews. Each team was grilled by industry leaders.
"That is the challenge in these [emerging] markets. You can have as many good ideas as you want but your market has to find value or you have no business."
With Kwado, prospective workers and employers connect to the platform with a basic Nokia phone that is readily accessible in Africa. The worker is paid cash or with "mobile money," a form of cash transfer for those without a bank account.
After the Hult Prize wrapped up, Ms. Matthews and Mr. Duahn chose to stick with Kwado, hunt for investors and refine the product after a successful trial in Africa.
"Francis has this level of endurance that I have never experienced or seen," says Ms. Matthews, praising her former teammate. "He has built a company for himself, built a future and got educated. He is a success story and he has a family."
Now chief executive officer of Kwado, Mr. Duahn says he plans to give the fledgling business his full attention after graduating from Haskayne next summer."My mother loves the idea," he says, proudly. "She always said the future belonged to people who work hard. It's why she hoped for her children to do all we can to help other people."
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