At entrepreneurial cauldrons like MIT and other likeminded schools, the developing world is increasingly viewed as an enticing business opportunity, one where principled innovators can not only turn a profit but also solve daunting social challenges, create good jobs, and accelerate the local economy. This growing appetite for profit-paired-with-impact is reflected in the rising level of support top schools are giving to students who wish to explore, or outright pursue, frontier market opportunities.
At the Institute, such students often find their academic home within a home at the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, which operates on the belief that entrepreneurs and their market-driven solutions are critical to advancing global prosperity. The Center is celebrating a decade of progress they’ve made in that regard — as captured in its recently released report, "The Legatum Fellowship: 10 Years of Impact" — while also welcoming their newest cohort of fellows.
“Our 10-year Impact Report illustrates just how powerful a force for economic and social change entrepreneurs can be,” says Megan Mitchell, director of fellowship and student programs. “That said, what is most important to us is cultivating the next generation of change agents, and our new group of fellows shows enormous potential.”
While the Legatum Center offers a range of programs for students, the fellowship is reserved for those most committed to building and scaling ventures in the developing world. Besides tuition, travel, and prototyping support, Legatum Fellows receive access to mentors and advisors, a targeted for-credit curriculum, and the peer support of an incubator-like community.
Meghan McCormick, a recent MIT Sloan graduate, valued the community aspect of her Legatum Fellowship most of all.
“I worked hand-in-hand with students from eight different MIT departments and five different continents,” McCormick says. “Each of them contributed something that is now a part of my venture’s DNA.”
This year’s cohort of 24 Legatum Fellows was selected from over 80 applicants across all MIT schools. They are implementing ventures in four Latin American countries, six African countries, and five countries in South and Southeast Asia. Their industries include health care, education, professional services, real estate, IT-telecom, energy, legal services, and agriculture.
Elisa Mansur, for instance, is building a network of home-based daycare centers to deliver early childhood education to low-income neighborhoods in Brazil. Christian Ulstrup’s venture seeks to reduce health care disparities in Cambodia by empowering endoscopists with real-time lesion detection tools. The new cohort also includes several students returning for their second year of the fellowship, such as Prosper Nyovanie, whose company makes solar power more accessible to low-income households in Zimbabwe, and Juliet Wanyiri, whose venture empowers local innovators through design workshops in Kenya.
The new fellows will join a growing family of Legatum-bred entrepreneurs that stretches back more than a decade. To illustrate more broadly the benefit of supporting early-stage entrepreneurs within a robust ecosystem like MIT, the Legatum Center gathered as much information as possible on their alumni’s professional activity and analyzed it in their 10-year Impact Report.
With support from the Legatum Group, the Mastercard Foundation, and HRH Princess Moudi Bint Khalid, the Legatum Center from 2007 to 2017 distributed over $7 million in funding to 213 Fellows. Since then alumni with active ventures in frontier markets have reportedly raised a total of $79 million in outside funding and created 14,700 jobs. They have also impacted 600,000 consumers, 300,000 farmers, 230,000 patients, and 37,000 fellow business owners.
The report also features vignettes on some of the Center’s most impactful alumni. David Auerbach and Ani Vallabhaneni, for instance, are two cofounders of Sanergy, a company that’s making quality sanitation affordable in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, by collecting and converting the waste into valuable products like fertilizer and insect-based animal feed. They employ 250 people directly at the company and work with over 1,000 more as franchise toilet operators. Sanergy serves 60,000 customers per day and is growing by 80-100 toilets each month.
Another alumna is Fernanda de Velasco, who, with her cofounders, established Mexico’s first equity-based crowdfunding site. Called Play Business, it has already helped fund over 100 startups, helped create over 1,500 new jobs, and is growing by 1,300 new users per month. Fernanda and her team also worked proactively with the Mexican federal government for two years to draft and pass the country’s first comprehensive fintech legislation.
Aukrit Unahalekhaka cofounded Ricult, which empowers over 1,000 smallholder farmers in Thailand and Pakistan through a platform that bridges credit, information, and access gaps. Ricult is backed by the Gates Foundation and recently raised $1.85 million in seed funding.
Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, meanwhile, launched an innovative recycling business in Lagos, Nigeria, which employs over 100 people and has processed more than 3,000 tons of recycling that would otherwise sit in trash heaps. Bilikiss recently handed the reins of the venture over to her COO (who is also her brother) in order to accept a government appointment as general manager for the Parks and Gardens Agency for Lagos State, a role that allows her to continue in her lifelong mission to clean up Lagos by leading citywide initiatives and shaping policy.
Mitchell says it’s “always a joy” to have star alumni come back for networking events or to present in class.
“There’s so much the current fellows can learn from them,” she says, “but it’s also powerful for fellows just to look at these alumni and envision where they themselves could be in a few short years, already making an impact of their own.”