Carlson School Undergraduate Wins Gold Prize at Acara Challenge
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
A new venture founded by a Carlson School undergraduate student that helps young adults in Somalia find jobs took home top honors at the 2020 Acara Challenge.
Morgan Kerfeld, a junior majoring in entrepreneurial management and public and nonprofit management, and her project, ShaqoSearch, won the undergraduate division’s gold prize as well as the crowd favorite award.
She spoke to the Carlson School about ShaqoSearch and what’s next for the startup.
What inspired you to create ShaqoSearch and how did you bring your vision for it to life?
“It actually all started as an assignment in one of the University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenge Courses. My professors challenged us to come up with a solution to a grand challenge in the world. I asked to be put on the team assigned with developing an intervention that would improve young adult livelihoods in Kismayo, Somalia. When I first entered the course, I never would have imagined working on an intervention for a community in Somalia. However, after reading the book City of Thorns and conversations with my professors, I realized I was very passionate about improving young adults' livelihoods. This passion continued to grow after our team was connected with a partner organization, Alight.
Alight is a non-governmental organization providing health care and clean water, shelter, protection, and economic opportunity to more than 3.5 million people in 17 countries each year. Through weekly conversations with Alight’s Somalia team, our class team quickly learned that young adults in Kismayo, Somalia, are a passionate and talented group looking to make a change in their country but are struggling to find employment opportunities due to traditional word-of mouth hiring practices and employers hiring through clan and family ties.
ShaqoSearch developed from this realization. After the course finished, I knew I didn’t want to stop developing it. This was partly because of the support and encouragement ShaqoSearch was getting from mentors, professors, and Alight, but also because I had developed an attachment to the community members who would benefit from ShaqoSearch. I truly believe ShaqoSearch can really help young adults in Kismayo find employment and improve their livelihoods.
What I didn’t know at this point was how important ShaqoSearch was going to become in my life. For the next two and a half months leading up to the Acara Challenge, I had weekly Skype meetings with Alight’s Somalia team and worked very closely with Alight’s Minneapolis headquarters to further develop ShaqoSearch. It was a lot of early mornings and late nights having Skype calls, writing applications and finishing a business model for ShaqoSearch, but it was all worth it knowing ShaqoSearch would impact the lives of young adults in Kismayo.
Can you tell us a little more about ShaqoSearch and how it works?
ShaqoSearch is a tailor-made job connection platform that matches young adults with applicable skills to employers with open positions in Kismayo, Somalia. On ShaqoSearch, young adults create a personal profile to market their skills and experience while employers create profiles indicating open employment opportunities.
Using artificial intelligence, the tool determines preliminary employment matches between young adults and open employment opportunities. Those matches are sent to Alight’s staff for an additional verification. Once a final match is determined, the employer and employee are given each other’s contact information.
Throughout the duration of employment, ShaqoSearch seeks feedback through the platform ensuring both parties are satisfied. Finally, the employer pays for the employee’s service through mobile payment transfer on ShaqoSearch, including a small service premium fee paid to Alight to financially sustain the venture.
What's next for you and ShaqoSearch going forward? How will winning the Acara Challenge help your mission?
I will be traveling - as soon as possible - to Nairobi, Kenya, to work with Alight’s Somalia and Kenya teams to further develop and implement ShaqoSearch in Kismayo, Somalia. While in Nairobi, I will be working with Alight’s Somalia and Kenya teams to design a pilot model of ShaqoSearch to validate demand assumptions. While the pilot model is being tested, I will also be creating a beta version of the tool to launch, which will test stakeholder perceptions of our software design.
After successfully launching the beta version of ShaqoSearch, a final platform will be implemented in Kismayo. Following implementation in Somalia, Alight plans to expand its services across Africa by working with its many offices throughout the continent. The hope is ShaqoSearch will eventually have an impact not only on the young adults in Kismayo, but young adults all across Africa.
I am incredibly grateful for the support I will be receiving after winning the Acara Challenge. Not only does winning provide financial support but I will also receive incredible mentors from Acara who have already been instrumental in getting ShaqoSearch to where it is today. The next steps I will be taking with ShaqoSearch would not have been possible without Acara.
The Acara Challenge is held by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School, the Acara Challenge spurs start-ups with creative, sustainable solutions that can have an impact in the real world. This year, the challenge’s tenth, was held virtually for the first time, with participants pitching to more than 200 students, alumni, faculty, and community members.
For winning, Kerfeld and her project were awarded cash prizes to further develop her venture.