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Geeks to the rescue: How to save the world in 54 hours

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Zohra Bensemra/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A girl learns to use a computer at Mashal School near Islamabad, Pakistan, in January 2013. Street children study at the nonprofit school, which helps more than 400 children. An event called Tech4Change in Portland, Ore., aims to create new tech-oriented business startups that will help provide a billion new jobs across the developing world.

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From June 7-9, aspiring social entrepreneurs, designers, and developers will get a chance to try out new business ideas with expert coaches and judges, and to compete for prizes. International NGO Mercy Corps is hosting the competition, called Tech4Change, at its global headquarters in Portland, Ore., in collaboration with Seattle-based Startup Weekend and a host of local tech accelerators and mentors.

Like other Startup Weekends, the event schedule is intense: In less than 54 hours, participants must pitch, build, and present tech-oriented social enterprise concepts. If the crowd selects an initial concept as one of the top 12, the entrepreneur assembles a team of designers, developers, business project managers, and marketers from the weekend's attendees to help build a minimum viable product – a sort-of prototype – by the end of the weekend. The teams then present their new social enterprises to the panel of judges, and at 9 p.m. the event concludes with winners receiving their prizes.

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Entrepreneurs might be surprised to learn that nonprofits aren't the only ones interested in Tech4Change, said event lead Allison Deverman Vietor of Mercy Corps.

Many profit-maximizing investors are eager to gain access to the “base of the pyramid” – those living on $5 a day or less – a huge market with billions of potential new customers. Attendees will learn how to  design and market “bottom of the pyramid” products and strategies from experts in the field at Mercy Corps, Thoughtworks, and Manifesto.

But nonprofits are also setting their scopes wide, hoping the weekend can generate job-creating ideas that they can take abroad to create employment in areas where it's needed. Mercy Corps Senior Director of Social Innovations Andy Dwonch explained:

”One billion jobs are needed in the coming decade just to keep up with current levels of global unemployment. We see that entrepreneurship and, in particular, entrepreneurship focused on opportunities in the digital economy, is one way to generate economic opportunities and jobs. Small businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises are the biggest engine for job growth in the world.”

Focusing solely on social innovation is a new idea for Startup Weekend, and many entrepreneurs may need some support in developing business models with a double- or triple-bottom line. To help them along, Mercy Corps employees are attending both to mentor and participate, and Deverman Vietor hopes entrepreneurs will take this chance to get inside the heads of nonprofit experts and make new contacts.

As an added bonus, Global IT consultancy firm Thoughtworks is hosting a “boot camp” May 29th for registered participants to work on customer validation – designing products people want – and learn more about LEAN methodologies.

Tech4Change may be the first event of its kind, but Deverman Vietor hopes it won’t be the last. She predicts that by getting entrepreneurs and nonprofit experts together, the competition can create new solutions to old problems.

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• For more information, visit the Tech4Change website or get tickets to participate at Eventbrite.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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