"UGrow" wins first round of Hult Prize competition

“UGrow” wins first round of Hult Prize competition

Dec. 7, 2018

 Solving the growing global crisis of youth unemployment is no easy task, but UGrow, an organic produce subscription service, could help curb it.

The business venture concept of a team of Maryville College students, UGrow was announced the winner of the first-round Hult Prize competition at Maryville College last month. Two international students and one American student – Gabbie Kelsey ’20, Rino Toriya and Mariana Iacometti – now qualify to take their UGrow idea to a regional competition in Boston, Mass.

Founded in 2009 by Hult International Business School graduate Ahmad Ashkar and run by the Hult Prize Foundation, the Hult Prize competition challenges teams of students enrolled at colleges and universities around the world to develop business plans that address a global social challenge.

Teams of three or four students develop innovative startup enterprises to solve the problem and then compete in multiple rounds over several months until a winner is announced. In addition to a $1 million prize, the winning team receives mentorship and advice from the international business community.

Maryville College has participated in the competition since 2015, when Souha Arbi, then a 20-year-old exchange student from Tunisia, organized the first teams.

UGrow provides produce

This year’s Hult Prize challenge tasked teams to come up with a business venture that would employ 10,000 youth in the next decade.

The UGrow business model would employee youth as farmers. Anyone with access to a plot of land, no matter the size, could apply to be a farmer. UGrow would provide the seeds and employ agronomic engineers to ensure farmers meet requirements. After harvesting in-season crop, it could be sold directly to consumers through a UGrow app.

The idea for UGrow came to Kelsey, an international studies major from Gallatin, Tenn., during an ECN349: Political Economy class. She said she watched a TED talk in class about a man who called himself a “guerilla gardener” because he gardens in public spaces. Not long after, Kelsey read an article about subscription services delivering fresh vegetables to homes. That’s when the idea clicked.

The UGrow team decided to headquarter its company in Argentina (Iacometti’s home country), where only 5 percent of the produce remains local.

Iacometti said she believed that this year’s Hult Prize challenge was relevant to the entire team.

“Somehow, we are part of that youth unemployment problem, so it’s personal in a sense,” she said.

Next semester, all three team members will be out of the country. Iacometti is returning to Argentina, and Toriya is returning to Japan. Kelsey will be joining Toriya in Japan to study abroad. Because of this, they hope they will be able to pitch UGrow in a regional competition in Japan, instead of Boston, the location where Maryville College winners typically advance.

Should they be able to compete regionally, the team said they’d take the judges’ feedback into account to improve upon their idea.

“There’s so much research we still have to do,” Iacometti said. “The judges were really helpful, and I think our idea has potential.”

Three finalist teams pitch ideas

The finals for the campus-wide competition were held on Nov. 17 in Lawson Auditorium but were preceded by informational workshops and preliminary rounds.

Judges included Beth Hamil, the executive director of the Cancer Support Community in Knoxville; Elicia Hunt, HR director at Blackberry Farm; Brandon Bruce, co-founder and COO of Cirrus Insight; Chris Ramsey ’98, manager of EPD Business Planning, Denso; and Ted Landau, retired from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The judges used five criteria to evaluate each venture: alignment with the challenge, sustainability, profitability, feasibility and scalability.

Bruce, a first-time judge, said he enjoyed seeing students tackle such a large undertaking.

“I enjoyed seeing the students think about starting businesses that could potentially employ 10,000 young people over 10 years,” said Bruce. “It's a big challenge. For context, there are only around 1,000 businesses in the United States that have more than 10,000 employees.”

Other finalist teams pitched businesses labeled “Mold the Youth (M.T.H.) Club” and “Show Me How.”

M.T.Y. Club is a social club that caters to social entrepreneurs. Youth would have the opportunity to work in the club, learn from the members and network with them.

Show Me How is a mobile app that helps people answer their technology questions via a video call. Youth could work as tech support and work from home with flexible hours.

The teams that didn’t win the campus-wide competition can still submit their ideas online to a panel of Hult Prize judges for another opportunity to attend regionals.

Competition supports MC mission

Dr. John Gallagher, professor of management at Maryville College, has been a faculty advisor for the competition since it began at MC. Over the past three years, he’s watched the competition’s presence at the College evolve.

“We’ve learned how best to publicize it on campus, how best to recruit teams and what the best timeframe is to give students enough time to prepare, but not so much time that it competes with their other interests and needs,” Gallagher said.

The Hult Prize challenge is always difficult, and its global scope can be daunting, Gallagher admitted. However, he said he believes it’s important to teach students how to tackle problems and trust their creative instincts.

“During that process of slowly chipping away at [the challenge] intellectually, they start to realize that it’s not about solving the world’s problems; it’s about an idea,” Gallagher said. “It’s coming up with an idea and a plan where every little bit helps.”

Kelsey described the overall competition experience as fulfilling.

“I, for one, never knew how fun social entrepreneurship could be,” she said. “It was challenging because there were so many pieces to think about, but the overall experience was very fun and very fulfilling.”

Gallagher is looking forward to the future of the Hult Prize at MC because he sees it as a way to carry the College’s mission to “search for truth” and “work for justice.”

“Every Maryville graduate, in a sense, is expected to be a social entrepreneur,” Gallagher said. “They’re encouraged to go out there and make a difference.”

Written by Evy Linkous ’16 for Maryville College.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2019 semester is 1,148.