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Million-Dollar Prize Winners Hope to Change the Face of Global Tourism

The Hult Prize Finals and Awards 2019 at the United Nations
The Hult Prize Finals and Awards 2019 at the United Nations

A team of Mexican entrepreneurs were the winners of the 2019 Hult Prize -- a $1 million award presented each year to aspiring young visionaries from around the world who are creating businesses with a positive social impact.

This year's contest focused on global youth unemployment and attracted more than 250,000 participants from around the world.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who’s been a major supporter of the Hult Prize since its inception in 2009, announced the winners.

"These young people are our best hope for the future,” Clinton said. “Look at them! They are from all over the world. They are happy to be together. They think what they have in common is more important then what divides them."


Rutopia, the winner, connects tourists with indigenous communities in rural areas of Mexico.

Mexican travel start-up Rutopia has teamed up with Airbnb to offer visitors unique travel experiences in rural areas of Mexico. (Courtesy - Rutopia)

"It feels great! We are very excited and we cannot wait to come back to Mexico and share these with all the other people in Rutopia,” said Emiliano Iturriaga, who accepted the award along with three of his team members.

He also said it was a win for all the people they work with in the local communities.

Iturriaga describes Rutopia as an engine that empowers indigenous youth to design and sell trips online, while making it easy for travelers to find authentic cultural experiences.

"We're turning unemployed youth into successful touristic entrepreneurs in their own villages,” he said.

The company is now collaborating with Airbnb to create eco-friendly, immersive travel experiences.

Business as a force for good

Ahmad Ashkar founded the Hult Prize Foundation in 2009, to inspire students on university campuses around the world to think differently about business, he said.

"I was an investment banker, the child of refugees, who felt unfulfilled with their own life and my contribution to society,” he said. “So I felt young people had to choose: be good or be cold-hearted investment bankers. So I created The Hult Prize as a platform to equip them, arm them, and then deploy capital to these young people and their ideas; capital that can help them change the world."

A social entrepreneur himself, Ashkar feels he's doing his part toward that goal. He's the founder of Falafel Inc., a Palestinian-inspired small-food business in Washington, D.C., with a cause.

Falafel Inc. in Washington, D.C. uses some of the proceeds from its Palestinian-inspired falafel sandwiches to help employ and feed refugees. (Julie Taboh/VOA)

“With every dollar you spend in our restaurant, we help feed, employ and empower refugees," Ashkar said. “I'm proud to say we fed more than a quarter-million refugees since launching Falafel Inc. around the world.”

Diego's story

Diego Sandoval first heard about the Hult Prize when he was a sophomore in high school. He then became involved with the program during his sophomore year of university at NYU Abu Dhabi, bringing the Hult Prize competition to his university campus.

Diego Sandoval with his mentor Ahmad Ashkar at Boston Regional, 2017. (Courtesy - Diego Sandoval)

"That led to a series of internships with the Hult Prize accelerator program, where the best 50 teams get together over six weeks to compete and build their businesses," he said.

"The accelerator program brings in 200 students from around the world from over 30 countries," Sandoval said. "And I had the privilege of sitting down with every participant, every competitor, to study the social networks behind their business growth. And so as part of the Social Research branch of network science, I was able to investigate that social capital that we have embedded in the Hult Prize ecosystem."

The experience gave him the opportunity to understand the message of what the Hult Prize stands for he said. "It really aims to inspire students to change the trajectory of their careers from a traditional, conventional path to a more entrepreneurial and more passion-driven, mission-driven career."

Winners circle

Previous Hult Prize winners have included people like Mohammed Ashour, co-founder and CEO of the Aspire Food Group, which harvests crickets as a source of protein to feed the world.

And a winning start-up team from India called NanoHealth, devoted to bringing health care to India's urban slums.

"We have companies in agriculture, in fishing, in youth unemployment, from Palestine to Zimbabwe," Ashkar, of the Hult Foundation, said. "We've got over 25,000 students who organize programs across a hundred countries and 2,500 staff and volunteers.

"It's just been a humbling experience to build this movement,” he said.

Hult Prize 2020

The theme for the 2020 Hult Prize is the issue of climate change.

For would-be contestants, Rutopia's Iturriaga offered advice: "The important thing is that you really care about the problem. You don't build a business and then make the impact, you first see what's your passion, what do you want to solve in the world, and then you build a business around it."