Interview with Brian Cotter, Innovation Lab Lead at UNICEF and Entrepreneur
After the Lunar New Year, we had a chance to sit down with Brian Cotter, Innovation Lab Lead at UNICEF and entrepreneur. Living in Vietnam for almost ten years, Brian has been busy helping small businesses grow and starting a couple of his own ventures. He has been instrumental in UNICEF’s expansion of the Innovation Lab in Vietnam through piloting the 2015 UPSHIFT programme, an entrepreneurial support service for youth.
What are UNICEF’s Innovation Labs?
UNICEF’s Innovation Labs are open, collaborative incubation accelerators that bring business, universities, governments and civil society together to create sustainable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing children and youth. The Innovation Labs are incredibly localised, drawing on the experience and knowledge of youth that have unique insights into the challenges that affect their communities. For example, Vietnam has a strong technology sector and a relatively young population. Here, we want to empower youth to leverage technology to resolve tough problems. Many Innovation Labs are youth-led, supported by UNICEF’s vast global network. Solutions developed in one Innovation Lab can be shared across UNICEF centres, expediting systemic and sustainable change.
In 2014, UNICEF’s Global Innovation Lab launched the first UPSHIFT program in Kosovo. In 2015, you were able to pilot the second UPSHIFT program in Vietnam. What is UPSHIFT and how does the program work in Vietnam?
UPSHIFT seeks to create youth-led social impact programs by providing them with the necessary skill training, network resources and mentorship. UPSHIFT in Vietnam invites youth to recognise and solve problems within their community. The program, which may take up to six months to complete, consists of three stages: Outreach, Workshop and Incubation.
In the first stage, we hosted 25 outreach sessions in community centres around Ho Chi Minh City for 681 youth participants, 36% were from disadvantaged or marginalized communities, and 68% were female with the majority aged between 14-24 years old. The first stage ended with a call to action to form groups of 2-4 and apply for the second stage, UPSHIFT: Social Impact Workshop. Out of 93 applications, we chose the ten best projects, which ranged from sexual health education to creating services for citizens with disabilities.
A group plans their social impact project during the UPSHIFT Workshop. (photo credit: UNICEF Vietnam/ Truong Viet Hung)
During the second stage, the ten most promising groups were invited to a 2.5 day intensive workshop, exposing the youth to the skill-sets needed to design, build and test their products as well as how to execute and manage them. In preparation for the workshop, each group was also assigned a mentor. We also had seven speakers throughout the weekend workshop. The mentors and speakers were local experts, both from the for-profit and non-profit sector who volunteered their time.
Throughout the workshop the curriculum emphasised a ‘problem-centric’ approach, meaning that the participants spent the majority of the time defining the problem, conducting stakeholder analyses and predicting the expected impact. Towards the later part of the workshop, the teams began prototyping and testing different ways to solve their defined problem. The teams then assessed the financial and operational feasibility of their ideas, planning how they would utilise the 1,000 USD incubation seed fund in the final stage. At the end of the workshop, the teams pitched their ideas in front of a judging panel and guests. Out of the 10 pitches, five teams were chosen to continue to Stage three; Incubation.
Which ten projects were chosen and what happens in Stage three?
Our top five projects are working on:
- developing a job search website for blind people
- developing a centre providing consulting services and advice for blind people to develop employable skills
- making social media videos teaching sign language for public service providers and people.
- a training course for primary school children on respiratory health
- a training course for students to support people with disabilities using public transport services.
Beginning in January 2016, the five teams leading these projects have three months to fully execute their pilots and showcase their products or services to an audience of potential supporters. Throughout this final stage, UPSHIFT will continue to provide training courses and the mentors will also continue to support with their teams.
What happens after participating in the UPSHIFT?
We have a number of exit opportunities for all participants. Even those that only took part in the outreach programme are now part of the UNICEF network. They can participate in other UNICEF programmes and connect with partnering institutions. For the teams that made it to the final round, they will be connected with non-profit organisations, social enterprises and/or angel investors to support their work after the final stage of UPSHIFT.
Throughout UPSHIFT, there was a wide range of physical abilities. How was the programme able to include everyone equally?
Adapting our programme to the participants’ needs was a major challenge. There were a number of blind participants, so during our outreach session at Thien An Shelter for the blind our mind mapping exercise presented a challenge. The idea of mind mapping is simple enough: put yourself at the center of the map, identify communities you belong to, and brainstorm problems in those communities that you care about. However, mind mapping is a visual technique. Mr. Phong, founder and main teacher in the shelter explained that we needed to describe each element of the charts and diagrams for the blind participants to learn. He also suggested incorporating tactile elements into the program, so we created a physical model of the mind map.
What set the successful teams apart from the crowd?
We selected teams based on how well they defined the problem, how closely the problem aligns with UNICEF’s goals, the scale and severity of the problem and the background of the applicants.
Unsurprisingly, we found that participants under 18 years old and in the most marginalised groups were our best participants. The young participants demonstrated that their hearts were in the project as they tenaciously worked to overcome each challenge in the program. Teenagers showed a considerable amount of motivation and leadership. We even had a 16 year old lead one team!
Will there be an UPSHIFT 2016-2017?
Yes. We were thrilled with the calibre of participants in this year’s pilot program. For the next one, we want to build on what we learned from this round and hopefully incorporate additional Innovation Lab programs. We hope to expand our partnerships across Vietnam as well.
Why was Vietnam a logical choice for the second UPSHIFT programme?
Almost half the population is under 25 in Ho Chi Minh City. Twenty per cent of 12-18 year old children are out of school and 85 per cent of youth between the ages of 16-30 lack any technical training, indicating a need for higher quality education and skill development. Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges the country is full of potential and ambition, especially in the technology sector. With each program at the Innovation Lab, we try to develop technology tools that we can share with the world. Therefore, Vietnamese youth make an excellent partner in solving pressing issues while empowering local tech talent.
Why did you join UNICEF’s Innovation Lab?
There are two types of entrepreneurs in my mind, those that love to be in charge of a company, and those that crave the freedom it provides. I’m definitely the latter type. I like the freedom to build something that people find useful and enjoy. I’ve worked extensively with small businesses in Vietnam and started my own tech business. Joining UNICEF’s Innovation Lab was an opportunity to combine my background in entrepreneurship, my interest in technology and my passion for creating products at a level that goes beyond Vietnam’s borders.
What can entrepreneurs starting a business in Vietnam look forward to?
Vietnam’s economy is opening up, unsaturated and emerging quickly. The government actively supports the development of technology and science, creating huge opportunities in these sectors. The barriers to enter the market are also low.
What startup support services do young entrepreneurs need in Vietnam?
There needs to be deeper, more productive relationships between the public and private sector to improve the startup ecosystem. The state must be a partner of private enterprise, providing the structure in which business can thrive. Specifically, the public sector needs to invest more in the incubation of ‘pre-ideas’, such as co-working spaces and innovation labs at state-run universities.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Brian Cotter and do not officially represent UNICEF, or the official position of UNICEF or the UNICEF Innovation Labs.