Hult Prize Ivy awards business plans with social impact

Tiffany Yau seems to have a talent for seeing things as they might be, not as they are. Maybe that comes from years of learning magic tricks with her grandfather. Maybe it comes from years of dedication to issues with great social impact.

Regardless, after a couple of years working with other University of Pennsylvania students on applications to the Hult Prize Foundation for social-impact business funding, she envisioned a better way: Hult Prize Ivy.

Each year, teams of college students from around the world put forth their best ideas to solve that year's social issue and then progress through regional competitions to a summer global program at Ashridge castle outside of London, more colloquially known as Hult House Castle, where the Hult Prize winner is selected.

Ultimately, the Hult Prize is $1 million in startup capital for the best business idea selected each year that solves a social issue, says Ahmad Ashkar, chief executive officer for the foundation.

"We want to change the trajectory of students such as those at Penn, to let them know they have not just one choice -- business or social impact -- but that they can become a catalyst for change," Ashkar says.

In 2014, for example, he says the winner was Sweet Bites, a company that sells chewing gum designed to combat non-communicable diseases. In 2016, he says the ticketing service BuuPass was funded in Nairobi, Kenya, to enable the urban poor to have transportation access to job opportunities and thus higher incomes.

The theme for 2018 is "Harnessing the Power of Energy"

"What Tiffany did with Hult Prize Ivy," Ashkar says, "is create a new pathway -- an exclusive seat at the table -- for the winning entry in the Ivy competition that avoids having to compete at the regional level."

The process didn't come easily.

"As a sophomore team member working on Hult Prize@Penn, it wasn't doing well," Yau says. "We didn't have a lot of teams competing.

"Before my junior year, the Hult Prize@Penn campus director asked if I would like to assume her role," she says. "I went in not knowing a lot about mobilizing and training and also without a set career path.

"The 2017 theme was the refugee crisis, and I invited a refugee from Syria to speak," she says. "The more I got involved, the more passionate I became to make Hult Prize @Penn a success. We had four teams make it to regionals, and I provided funding to all four competing teams to travel nationally and internationally at the next round."

Yau was smitten and applied to work as a summer intern with the Foundation. Ashkar says they accept thousands of applications from college students for the internship program and that Yau was one of the few accepted. There, she says she pitched her idea for an all-Ivy Hult Prize.

It's coming together well. Since summer, she's recruited a team at Penn from last year's staff and competitors, and in January the call went out to all the Ivies for submissions, which are due at midnight Feb. 25.

Yau notes that the Hult Prize has a partnership with the United Nations, where the global finals are hosted and where the top few teams make their pitches before the ECOSOC/UN headquarters.

Hult Prize Ivy is not Yau's only passion. A senior majoring in sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, she is also captain of the University's women's golf team, competing as both a sophomore and junior in the Ivy League championship as one of Penn's top five golfers.

Also, not content with her full academic and athletic loads as well as her role as founder and director of Hult Prize Ivy -- which for most people might be considered a full-time job -- she is also enrolled in the master's of non-profit leadership program in the School of Social Policy & Practice.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., and raised in Southern California, Yau had a unique opportunity: "I started magic at the age of 4 as a bonding activity with my grandfather," she says.

As a stage magician, she's been a member of the Hollywood Magic Castle for seven years.

"It's a fraternal society within the magic community, who count Houdini and Neil Patrick Harris among its members," she says.

She's also brought her magic show to Penn, where as both a freshman and sophomore, she performed at the Penn Student Athlete Showcase "just for fun."

Recently, Yau met with Ashkar and the Hult Prize Global Team in Mexico City, where he invited her to work for Hult Prize full-time after graduating.

"I'm very excited to be able to further give back to the organization that completely turned around and inspired my career path," she says.