Rav Karwal knows the sting of poverty.
The 37-year-old USC Marshall School of Business alumnus remembers that fateful day 25 years ago when his father deserted his family.
Karwal’s mother struggled to support her two young sons. Eventually, she took out high-interest loans from unscrupulous lenders. As her debts mounted, vacations and meals out disappeared.
Karwal hopes to take that pain and transform it into something good. The serial entrepreneur heads HonestFi, a startup that designs a mobile application to provide financial services such as check cashing, fund advances and prepaid cards to low-income Americans – without high-cost commissions.
“Our focus is to get Americans out of poverty through technology,” Karwal said.
That vision was good enough for HonestFi to win the grand prize, along with $25,000, at the 2017 Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge held April 6 at the Ming Hsieh Boardroom in Ronald Tutor Hall.
Lotus Cups, maker of a reusable menstrual cup, came in second place and took home $10,000.
In addition to the prizes, the two winning teams will receive free business and legal services from Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, LLP, a business law firm; as well as Sherman IP, LLP, an intellectual property law firm. All finalists will have access to discounted legal services.
“I was very impressed by the quality of this year’s teams,” said Peter Beerel, Min Family Challenge director. “We had more interest than ever.”
A record 50 teams competed for coveted spots in the competition, which began in October. Seven made the cut. After the March semifinals, that number was reduced to five. Each team had at least one USC Viterbi undergraduate or graduate student and worked with a volunteer industry mentor.
The other 2017 Min Family Challenge finalists include:
Gila, which designs a mobile application that provides mental health counseling to depressed college students.
Alivio-LA, creator of an online immigration tool that makes immigration easier and more affordable.
Planty, creator of an interactive garden lab that allows for learning to take place in any classroom.
“This year was a cut above,” said Bryan Min, B.S. ISE ’86 and a member of the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors.
Added his wife, Julie Min: “This competition touches your heart and hits your soul.”
The business model competition encourages would-be social entrepreneurs to build businesses that benefit underprivileged parts of our society or in underdeveloped countries worldwide, ranging from technological problems facing under-served communities to providing access to clean water and affordable energy in developing countries.
“Many societal needs can be best met when innovative ideas from the technological and entrepreneurial spheres intersect with serving communities in need,” USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos said. “Social entrepreneurship with a strong technology fabric will be able to provide needed solutions that will be self-sustaining and effective.”
In recent years, USC Viterbi has become a burgeoning center of innovation and entrepreneurship. With the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, the NSF I-Corps Node headquartered on campus, the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, the HackSC hackathon and Synchrotron Startup Garage, USC Viterbi students have more opportunities than ever to develop innovative business models and explore commercialization of technologies.
Min Family Challenge participants attended workshops developed by Innovation Node-Los Angeles that focused on customer acquisition, business modeling, interviewing techniques and social entrepreneurship. Pai-Ling Yin, Greg Autry and Adlai Wertman of the USC Marshall School of Business taught some of the seminars, making their expertise available to the budding entrepreneurs. Beerel and USC Viterbi’s Alice Liu, assistant director for USC Viterbi’s Office of Innovation Technology and Entrepreneurship, oversaw the entire education program for the Min Family Challenge.
For the second consecutive year, each team received $2,500 from the National Science Foundation to canvass potential customers around the country to learn their problems and how they might address them. The NSF awarded the money to USC through an Innovation Corps “I-Corps” Site grant.
Andy Gu of Alivio-LA said he found the competition’s educational component of great value.
“I think I’ve learned so much,” he said. “I’ve learned how to pitch and how to tell my story to investors. I didn’t know any of this before.”
Betty Stearns, the 21-year-old chief executive of runner-up Lotus Cups, said she enjoyed the “hands-on” nature of the Min Family Challenge and gained some important practical knowledge.
“I think it’s incredibly valuable for engineers to get this introduction to business,” said Stearns, a senior in the USC Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
The Min Family Challenge launched in October 2015 with a generous gift from Bryan Min and his family: Julie Min, a UCLA alumna, who worked on Capitol Hill on the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee before raising their two children; their son Brandon, a USC Viterbi senior in industrial systems engineering; and daughter Brittany, a USC freshman.
“They’ve really spurred an entirely new and important activity here at USC Viterbi,” said Andrea Belz, USC Viterbi’s vice dean of technology innovation and entrepreneurship.
FlexSpecs, a startup that plans to produce inexpensive glasses with adjustable lenses that require no prescription, won the inaugural Min Family Challenge.
Wertman, the David C. Bohnett Professor of Social Entrepreneurship and founding director of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at USC Marshall, applauded the Min Family Challenge’s interdisciplinary approach to addressing the world’s “wicked” challenges.
“We’re taking technology and business to create a profitable, sustainable way to solve those problems,” he said. “That’s miraculous.”