What does the future look like to student entrepreneurs?

Imagine a world where nylon tights are created from sunlight, rather than atmosphere-polluting chemicals. Imagine picking juicy green basil from your kitchen aquaponic fish tank, rather than supermarket shelves. Imagine merging the joys of overseas travel with the power of English teaching for disadvantaged communities. Or blind people that can see using robotics rather than a cane. How about smallholder farmers empowered to combat crop disease through an artificial intelligence app, available on any mobile phone? Imagine a world in which remote communities can grow food locally and affordably, no matter how frozen or hot and arid the environment.

These are just six of the fifty-one initiatives pitched at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) earlier this month. And they’re not ideas, but businesses. They’re in action. Today.

 
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My travel bag is slung over my left shoulder. In it are three dress shirts, black shoes and polish, a laptop, notebook, 20 business cards (is that enough? too many?) and two canisters of freshly-roasted Ugandan coffee (can I take this through airport customs?). It’s our first international business trip as Kua, and I feel a little out of my depth.

Noisy alleyways snake down towards hotels, everywhere occupied by bustling throngs of people. It’s lightly raining and colourful umbrellas compete for space, merging as if to form the scales of a serpent, flowing through the smog.

Moving with the pack, I arrive at the hotel and check in.

 
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GSEA is an initiative of EO – Entrepreneur’s Organisation – which has a focus on building individuals as the leaders of excellent companies. Every year, EO brings the top student entrepreneurs from each country together to pitch their businesses, with one student ultimately celebrated as the global champion.

It’s not about what the company does, but how it does it. It’s about entrepreneurship. For the student business leaders, however, social and environmental impact appeared to be the unofficial theme. From all over the world, young people are leveraging exponential technologies to combat challenges ranging from climate change to poverty to food insecurity.

Kua’s inclusion showed me that albeit simple, coffee is a powerful vehicle for change.

It’s just after 9:30am on the second morning. I’m six minutes into my pitch and suddenly a furry microphone is hoisted across the room to hover just in front of my face. It’s distracting, but I can’t show it. First prize is valued at USD $100K. The whole thing is being filmed. It’s a big deal.

A row of six renowned judges look up at me, scribbling potential questions as I speak.

Inevitably, a pitch is one-sided. An opportunity to showcase your best work and your proudest achievements. For us, we’re Australia’s top student social enterprise. We’ve grown from four to fifteen clients in the last two months. We’ve put seventy Ugandan women through the Cents for Seeds program.

But, of course, we’ve also experienced challenges. Our team has six dedicated members who work and live together. We’re bootstrapping it. Every day, we teach ourselves how to do something we’ve never done before. Everything is a learning curve. Sometimes we wonder if we’d have a bigger impact by just going and getting a real job. Is what we’re creating really valuable? Important? It’s hard to know, because no one tells us what to do.

I finish the pitch and the microphone retreats, but I haven’t spoken of these challenges. Concerns. Instead, I’m sure. Confident. We’re shaping a better world … and all of the other amazing contestants have painted the same picture.

 
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There were two reasons why GSEA was awesome:

  1. It was genuinely inspiring

  2. It put what we’re doing in perspective

Let’s start with point two: after the pitches were done, I got to meet the people behind them. They’re all real. Normal. They have doubts and they have hobbies. Life isn’t perfect, but they’re super passionate about what they’re working on and why. Same with us, I realised. Certainty and success isn’t an overnight thing, no matter how it looks from the outside. Let’s keep doing this and let’s keep learning from the challenges.

And point one: this event made everyone feel like an underachiever. What people are working on is so so cool and it’s easy to draw comparisons between your work and theirs. That’s not the point. The point is to learn from each other, celebrate successes and collaborate for the bigger picture.

If the fifty students I met at the GSEA in China are the business leaders of the future, the sooner the future arrives, the better.