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CMU team wins challenge, $333K for nonprofit

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Friday, April 27, 2012, 7:50 p.m.

Change the world?

A team of Carnegie Mellon University graduate students had that in mind last fall when they entered the Hult Global Case Challenge.

On Thursday, Ketaki Desai, Beth Cullinan, Tim Kelly and Reggie Cox won $333,333 for a Miami nonprofit to implement a pilot project of the students' plan to distribute 20 million laptops to poor children worldwide over five years.

Two other nonprofits involved in providing housing and energy in impoverished nations will receive identical awards to implement the proposals of the winners in those categories.

"You are fortunate to have such bold and motivated students in Pittsburgh," said Ridrigo Arboleda Halaby, chairman and CEO of the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child.

Halaby said his organization will channel the prize money to the CMU students as they begin their pilot project. He hopes to have a report on their progress to present during judging for next year's competition.

Desai, 30, a native of Pune, India, who has a doctorate in biomedical sciences, said the Hult Case Challenge was a natural for the CMU team.

"Everyone at Heinz (CMU's college of public policy) has the idea of changing the world. The atmosphere encourages it," she said.

Cullinan, 37, a mechanical engineer who has done award-winning volunteer work bringing clean water to rural Ecuador, took notes when the group came together to brainstorm last fall.

"It was a matter of 'How can we do this? What will make it work?' The solution had to be sustainable in and of itself," Cullinan said. She said the team listed 1,000 questions and 200 ideas as it prepared last fall for the preliminary competition in Boston.

They drew on the experiences of CMU students who had worked with One Laptop Per Child in Rwanda and discussions with grassroots volunteers to devise a process for streamlined distribution of the laptops and to create a global brand for free, open-source software for the rugged little machines. They suggested tapping established nonprofits to build community networks, among other ideas.

In New York, they presented their plan to a team of judges including Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus and former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

"That it will be able to be implemented, that you will make a difference is incredible," said Cox, 30, program director for a nonprofit in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The CMU team beat competitors from universities in Denmark, Spain, Iraq, Abu Dhabi, the Philippines and Serbia, as well as the University of California and Dartmouth. The challenge, started three years ago by Hult International Business School graduate Ahmad Ashkar, attracted teams from 350 universities around the world this year.

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