Over the course of ten weeks, 24 binational teams and 570 college students used design thinking to collaborate on sustainable solutions to real challenges affecting the arts and entertainment industry in their local communities. At the end of the ten weeks, each team submitted a business concept and video pitch which was then scored by a selection committee, which selected the six finalist teams. The Expo is an essential component of IREX’s Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, a project-based virtual exchange that connects college students in Iraq, Jordan, and the U.S. through a business competition. The Expo is a unique opportunity that brings together college students with well-known entrepreneurs and experts in the field of business in a cross-cultural setting and equips them with invaluable skills that directly transfer to the workforce and an opportunity to network with professionals. The top three teams awarded a grant to develop their concepts were:
- First Place Team: Soran Eagles from Beaufort County Community College in the U.S. and Soran University in Iraq created an educational book and curriculum through local artists and resources to increase youth awareness on sustainability.
- Second Place Team: planet eARTh, from Central Piedmont Community College in the U.S. and Sulaimani Polytechnic University in Iraq created the mobile app “planet eARTh,” which provides awareness of the impact of environmental damage through local artwork.
- Third Place Team: PolyHills, from Hillsborough Community College in the U.S. and Duhok Polytechnic University in Iraq created a sustainable lifestyle brand that recycles used clothing into garment options customized to the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and homeless people while supporting employment opportunities.
During the Expo, Micah G. from the U.S. and her partner from Iraq, Soran Eagles’ team directors, gained first-hand experience on how to pitch an idea across cultural differences. For many students, presenting at a Virtual Expo with someone from another country is a unique experience. “The Virtual Business Expo was unique because of its diversity, as it was my first time working with great people outside my country. It was exciting to come together and present what we had designed,” Micah said. “The Expo developed my leadership and presentation skills both personally and professionally. I am now more confident to talk and present in front of others.’’
“We kept asking ourselves, how can we win this competition? What will lead us to the top?” shared the Iraq director, adding that his participation in the challenge was the best thing he had done in the year 2020. As a binational team, they met every weekend and learned a lot about one another’s culture, daily life activities, and manners as well as what challenges they faced in their communities. This understanding made it easier for the team to find the preferred problem and design the best sustainable solution. Their team was elated to find that their hard work had paid off. Soran Eagles will continue their collaboration and utilize the small grant to design their educational book and curriculum to raise awareness for youth on the concept of environmental sustainability in English and Kurdish.
The Expo is a professional development opportunity and a unique culminating event of the virtual exchange that allows students to showcase and celebrate their hard work, and develop essential entrepreneurial skills for an ever-growing remote workplace. Students often include the experience on their CVs, enhancing their marketability.
“Pitching our business concept at the Virtual Business Expo was an incredibly rewarding experience. The feedback received from the judges helped us tremendously as we continue to develop our business concept. Participating in the Virtual Business Expo helped me develop my public speaking skills in a very practical real-world experience,’’ said Calvin, PolyHills’ U.S. team director from Hillsborough Community College.
IREX has developed partnerships with experts in the field of business and entrepreneurship to support the program’s goal of providing a rich authentic business experience for students. The diverse judging panel consisted of Dina Saoudi, Co-founder of Seven Circles, Eileen Brewer, Director of Takween Accelerator, Bassem Abu Nimeh, Manager of Takween Accelerator, Rey Ybarra, creator of the Entrepreneur Panel Presentation connected with Shark Tank, and Alexis Taylor, CEO and Director of Engagement at 3Days Start Up Global Entrepreneurship Week. Each judge brought a unique perspective to the event and provided constructive feedback. Dina, who supports local and global organizations that aim to feed, heal, shelter, protect, educate, inspire, and empower individuals and communities around the world, described the event as “a wonderful cultural exchange platform engaging students from diverse backgrounds and cultures working collaboratively and sharing their respective experiences on ideas to change the world.” “The students are engaging in cross cultural collaboration, which is the best way to innovate and build solutions that bring people together across cultures,” Bassem said.
Facilitators who lead their teams through this cross-cultural, project-based learning experience share that while the challenge is a lot of work, it’s worth it. There is always an air of excitement the week the teams find out they are in the Expo, explained Bryan Shuler, a facilitator from Hillsborough Community College and one of the six finalist teams presenting at the Expo. “All participants benefit by seeing the success of those awarded, as they understand the amount of dedication and focus it takes to create an international product and present it in such a limited time via digital communication mediums,” Bryan said.
”Such an experience for the students that participated is unforgettable. I am sure they all learned something about themselves and appreciated the necessity to be well prepared for a business pitch. Effective communication is one of the top skills each student would have realized the importance of,” said Katen Amin, facilitator of team PolyHills from Hillsborough Community College in the U.S.
We live in a world where most can become an entrepreneur when given the needed resources and essential tools. The Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge is supporting this endeavor through cross cultural virtual exchange. The three top finalist teams eligible for the Stevens Initiative Alumni Small Grants of up to $2,000, will use those funds to further develop their concepts, striving to make a difference and leave their footprints in their local communities. The Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge program is currently implementing Cohort IV and has engaged nearly 2,500 students and 83 faculty across the United States, Jordan and Iraq in project based virtual exchange since September 2019.
Global Solutions is supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the US Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, is administered by the Aspen Institute, and implemented by IREX.