The 2018 Yenching Social Innovation Forum (YSIF '18) was a smashing success. Held from December 8-9 at Peking University, the conference convened 25 delegates from 16 countries and regions. These delegates represented the top 1.5% of more than 1,600 global applicants selected by the YSIF '18 Executive Committee in a competitive review process. The Founded in 2016 by the first cohort of scholars at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, YSIF continues to be an entirely student-run fall conference. As a flagship event for Yenching Academy, the mission of YSIF is to gather, network, and support young entrepreneurs who will become the next generation of innovators solving pressing problems facing China and the world.
The theme of YSIF '18 was "Smarter Living: Cities, Jobs, and Health for the Future," tying together the U.N. SDGs 3, 8, and 11 (good health, decent work, and sustainable communities). Throughout the two-day conference program, delegates explored and presented innovations to improve 21st-century living -- ranging from urban farming that strengthens environmental awareness and community-building in Hong Kong, to new mobile apps that improve healthcare access in Burkina Faso and Uganda.
The opening ceremony was held on the morning of December 8. Carl Hooks (USA, 2017 cohort) and Dhanasree Molugu (India, 2018 cohort), the Co-Chairs of YSIF '18, greeted delegates and speakers from around the world and shared the theme and purpose of the conference with the public. The rest of the ceremony consisted of three TED-style talks by leaders in different fields. Dr. Jeffrey Towson, a professor at Peking University and expert on Digital China, delivered his keynote speech on the development of smart cities. He included an in-depth analysis of the challenges encountered in China's urbanization process, as well as China's construction of smart cities in the era of digital transformation.
Next, Andrew Tsui Ka, co-founder of Rooftop Republic, shared his entrepreneurial journey and the community impacts of building rooftop farms in Hong Kong. Finally, Lynn Chen, from the water quality testing non-profit MyH2O, Introduced her latest start-up projects. She emphasized the importance of public awareness towards water pollution and water safety. The three speakers then combined into a moderated, interactive panel that offered delegates the chance to ask questions and exchange ideas about how entrepreneurship and social innovation can help China achieve “smarter living” and sustainable development.
After lunch, the delegates heard from Jonathan Rechtman, founder of Cadence Translate. Mr. Rechtman shared skills and techniques for delivering compelling pitches, based on his decade-long career as a professional interpreter and host for events like the APEC Business Leaders China Forum and TEDxBeijing.
With these tips in mind, all 25 delegates then entered the preliminary round of the YSIF '18 business pitch competition. Delegates were divided into three groups for presentation and assessment, based on the stage of development of their start-up projects. The competition's judging panels featured experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and consultants from Airbnb China, China Product Placement, Fresco Capital, SEED for Social Innovation, and other organizations. The eight highest scoring delegates from this round would get to present their start-ups a second time as “finalists” on Sunday, December 9.
The final Saturday session was a presentation from Zang Feng, a Partner at People's Architecture Office. Whereas Dr. Towson had spoken earlier about smart cities in China from technological and business perspectives, Mr. Zang demonstrated the importance of design for creating highly sustainable and smart buildings.
Sunday, December 9 kicked off with interactive workshops from four different speakers: Cindy Gottinger, Chief Evangelist of Ladies Who Tech; Heyu Huang, Venture Partner at Fresco Capital; Funa Li, co-founder and CEO of A Better Community (ABC); and Jessica Lam, co-founder of Kaiterra. These speakers helped delegates explore their values as entrepreneurs, learn new methods for assessing start-ups, and prepare to put new ideas into practice. The post-lunch session was led by Dr. Jonathan Woetzel, Director of the McKinsey Global Institute. His presentation detailed the path and direction of China's urbanization process and included some of McKinsey's leading research on the subject.
The afternoon showcased YSIF's partner organizations: SDSN Youth, Young Sustainable Impact (YSI), SEED for Social Innovation, and MIT Solve. All four of these organizations align with YSIF's focus on youth, bottom-up problem solving, and global community. Yi Jun Mock gave delegates valuable information about SDSN Youth's many global programs and opportunities. Kai Dai introduced YSI China's 2019 program in Shanghai, including the chance for two YSIF '18 delegates to automatically win entry to the program. Xueshan Zhang shared the story of SEED and even brought 9 SEED Fellows to interact and network with delegates. Carl Hooks presented for MIT Solve, and Taranpreet Singh (a former YSIF delegate) capped off the session with an interactive entrepreneurship workshop.
YSIF '18 concluded with the final round of the Business Pitch Competition – the most exciting and long-awaited part of the conference. The top eight delegates from the preliminary round pitched their start-ups one by one on the big stage, before a panel of judges from Microsoft Accelerator, Innoway, and Fresco Capital. The start-ups covered areas such as maternal healthcare, disability empowerment, zero-emissions vehicles, and career consulting.
The three judges – Lin Tan, Tim Luan, and Heyu Huang – affirming the positive social values and potential of all eight projects and encouraged the delegates to work hard towards their dreams. After a deliberation, the judges awarded Mohamed Dhaouafi from Tunisia with the Most Investible Idea award, Stephen Tashobya from Uganda with the Most Innovative Idea award, and Rassidatou Konate from Burkina Faso with the Best Presentation award. At the same time, Mohamed Dhaouafi, the highest overall scorer of the competition, and Mateo Salvatto from Argentina were both qualified to participate in YSI China's Innovation Program, held next year in Shanghai.
The closing ceremony also featured a speech by Fan Shiming, Associate Dean of Yenching Academy. Dean Fan thanked YSIF '18 for promoting cross-cultural, interdisciplinary exchange and encouraged all young members of the audience to continue promoting smart, sustainable development in a globalizing world.
All 13 members of the YSIF '18 Executive Committee thank our delegates for their creativity, passion, and drive to overcome social challenges. We also thank our speakers, judges, workshop leaders, and partner organization representatives for sharing their knowledge and resources throughout the conference. Together, we are providing young talents with not only a platform and a supportive network, but also tangible opportunities to grow, scale, and fund their ventures.
Finally, we want to thank the YCA community for their support. This student-run conference would not be possible without generous funding, administrative support, and engaged volunteers from the Yenching Academy of Peking University!
by Antonio Roberto Quiroz Soto