Laurah addressing Closing Ceremony of 8th UNESCO Youth Forum-Photo credit UNESCO/Cyril Bailleux. Photo Credit Emmanuel Ollivier.

Laurah addressing Closing Ceremony of 8th UNESCO Youth Forum-Photo credit UNESCO/Cyril Bailleux. Photo Credit Emmanuel Ollivier.

Another young Saint Lucian has done herself and her country proud on the international stage. Miss Laurah John was the leader of an eight person winning team at the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum Startup Weekend which was held from October 25 to 27, 2013 in Paris, France. Miss John was also the delegate for Saint Lucia at the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum held from October 29 to 31, 2013 at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.

The UNESCO Youth Forum Startup Weekend was a collaborative effort of the United States, UNESCO and the global NGO, Startup Weekend. The event was a precursor to the 8th UNESCO Forum which was held under the theme “Youth and Social Inclusion: Civic Engagement, Dialogue and Skills Development” and reflected this theme by focusing on social entrepreneurship and the development of innovative ways for youth to help resolve today’s most pressing issues.

Startup Weekend in itself is a 54-hour entrepreneurship challenge where individuals learn to create a “startup” – a small enterprise designed to meet a local demand and be able to grow. It is an educational platform where participants have the opportunity learn the ABCs of entrepreneurship from experienced professionals, develop their creative and entrepreneurial skills, and connect with a worldwide network of over 45,000 people dedicated to action and innovation.

“Initially, I was excited yet apprehensive,” John said of her experience.  “Once the opening ceremony took place, I realized that we not only had to pitch an idea in front of the crowd in 60 seconds, but also rally a team from amongst the crowd of strangers, persuading them to support your idea in order for it to be one of the business ideas developed over the weekend.”

Miss John’s winning concept stemmed from her Master’s research on sustainable solid waste management. Her concept was for a startup which she and her team would later call S.E.E.D. (an acronym for Solutions Empowering Environmental Development). The startup’s mission would be initiating a creative solution to the issue of inefficient and inadequate solid waste management in Saint Lucia through the upcycling of recyclable materials to produce new products that are better in quality and of greater environmental value.

“The focus of my post secondary studies has always been oriented around issues of social development and sustainability,” John said. “My concentration on solid waste management was born out of my experience living in Canada and participating in the everyday household recovery of recyclable materials, then returning to Saint Lucia and having to revert to old ways of throwing everything out from plastic bottles to tin cans, to paper products.”

John further elaborated, “For me it was a very tangible problem that needed to be addressed. In addition to its impact on the physical landscape in terms of the litter, the flooding and having the landfill and the implications thereof, I also saw how it affected the people. “It’s a fact that the poor are disproportionately affected by the environmental hazards associated with inadequate or improper solid waste management. This is not only an environmental issue but one of equity as well.”

John and her dedicated team worked diligently over the course of the Startup Weekend to further develop the idea for S.E.E.D. The condensed nature of the Startup Weekend format meant that for them, the development of S.E.E.D. became an exercise in working harder and smarter.

“It was intense! Admittedly, I was not focused on the competition aspect for the majority of the weekend. For me it was an exercise in how to develop a startup,” John said. “I just really just wanted something concrete to present at the end of the weekend; something that was viable and realistic.”

On the Sunday evening, the 10 teams presented their ideas to a panel of 5 judges including U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion. Startup ideas were evaluated based on the criteria of customer validation; the strength of the business plan; execution methodology; funding and the practicing of lean startup development of a minimal viable product (MVP). After the judges deliberated, the winning team was announced – S.E.E.D, led by Laurah John, was selected by the judges as the winning startup.

“I was overwhelmed, excited and in shock,” said John about her reaction to the announcement that her idea had won. “I felt extremely proud of myself and my team. Surprised also … there were a number of other very good ideas which were presented. It was any man’s game, so for us to come out on top was definitely an achievement.”

For her win, the 27 year old and her team received recognition and prizes during the 8th UNESCO Youth Forum. As the team leader, John will receive a special prize of an all expense paid trip to the United States to meet with potential investors and entrepreneurs.

The young entrepreneur now has her sights firmly set on bringing her startup idea to life.

“I have every intention of starting this business,” said John when asked about the future of S.E.E.D. “My vision for S.E.E.D is for it to grow into a prominent, stable, international social enterprise that is spearheading not only a more sustainable solid waste management through recovery and upcycling, but also leading the way in terms of developing more innovative solutions that challenge the way we live.”

John, who is also a volunteer with the National Youth Council, had this message for Saint Lucian youth:

“Focus on discovering your passion and allow that to lead you when you are deciding on your education and career path. Be courageous! Be bold! Recognize that there will be many challenges but your ability to overcome them is what will give you the advantage and the perseverance to push beyond those barriers.”

Miss Laurah John has certainly stood up to the challenge. Emerging from our small island developing state, she has made an impact at an international entrepreneurship competition with a concept which could change the way Saint Lucians live and solve a major environmental and social problems on the island. As a nation, we need to encourage more of this kind of innovation among our young people and create avenues for them to think creatively on how to solve some of the pressing issues of the day.

Kudos to Miss John for her hard work and dedication!

Saint Lucia is looking forward to the fruits that will bear from the seeds which were planted during Startup Weekend Paris.


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