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UT students vie for prestigious $1 million business prize

A Tembo home educator in Lagos, Nigeria, trains a parent on educating her child with Tembo’s Early Childhood Education Curriculum, as co-founder Brent Caramanica supervises.
A Tembo home educator in Lagos, Nigeria, trains a parent on educating her child with Tembo’s Early Childhood Education Curriculum, as co-founder Brent Caramanica supervises.
Published Sep. 23, 2015

On Saturday, a group of University of Tampa students will pitch their business to five esteemed judges, including former President Bill Clinton, hoping to win $1 million in seed capital funding.

Their business, Tembo Education, was created and developed just a year and a half ago, specifically for this competition from the Hult Prize, a foundation which supports young university entrepreneurs with a focus on social business ideas.

This year's theme, selected by Clinton, is Early Childhood in the Urban Slum and Beyond.

Following that theme, Phil Michaels, Samantha Taranto, Sercan Topcu, Brent Caramanica, Ulixes Hawili and Eric Biel developed a mobile app for at-home education for children up to age 6.

"Our solution uses a high-quality, evidence-based curriculum to train and employ home educators (members of the urban slum community) to teach parents via SMS text messages," said Hawili, who specializes in economic development. "The parents then educate their children in their own homes. We assess the learning process through a quiz via SMS text.

"For educating their child and answering the quiz correctly, the parent is rewarded with free airtime."

In regards to the economic development implications of the app, it assists the "country by educating millions of children while creating employment opportunities, generating revenue for the telecoms and opening the doors to foreign investors."

Their idea propelled them to become one of six finalists in the competition, which started with 20,000 teams.

"We have defeated all eight Ivy Leagues and are the only team in the USA to advance," Hawili said.

Getting this far was no easy task.

Before the app became a reality, Michaels, the chief visionary officer, spent his time getting students around campus interested in responding to Clinton's call to action.

"At our first team meeting, the office was packed with at least 20 people," Hawili said. "Over the subsequent weeks, that number saw a precipitous decline until there were only five left. It was at that moment that we realized who was in it to win it."

Now, even before they make their final pitch at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York, Tembo Education has already made an impact.

"My dream is to create something so much bigger and more impactful than myself, that it lasts for a lifetime for generations to come," Michaels said. "I believe every single person on this planet has a true gift, a true talent, and our mission on Earth is to find out what that gift or talent is that has been given to us. Then, once we find it, we share our gift with as many people in the world as possible."

The team spent this summer in Nigeria training at-home educators and seeing results. After 11 weeks in the country, Michaels witnessed a graduation ceremony for the 60 children enrolled in the pilot program.

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"I won't lie," Hawili said. "At times, it was difficult. The air was polluted and the streets littered with waste, nothing we were accustomed to. But, ultimately, the passion inherent in all of us prevailed. We were driven forward by the smiles and hopes of the children we were there to serve, and nothing was going to stifle our determination."

Though the obvious goal is to win the grand prize, without it, Tembo Education will still provide educational opportunities that previously didn't exist.

The team has been moved by the impact in Nigeria and wishes to propel Tembo Education across borders and regions to reach the most children possible. The million dollar prize would allow that goal to be met more quickly.

"There is no such thing as an insurmountable obstacle for us."

Contact Arielle Waldman at awaldman@tampabay.com.

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