Annahita Akbarifard called a long necklace with large silver and black oval-shaped beads worn in the M2GATE global pitch competition a statement piece.
The College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters senior is right. What the jewelry — made of recycled K-Cups and other discarded plastic materials by a minority community who informally collects garbage on Cairo, Egypt’s streets — said and showed to a panel of M2GATE judges helped earn the psychology senior’s team, EcoMENA, a first place finish.
“The Zabbaleen, who made the necklace, have been recycling and upcycling in Egypt for decades. Their work reduces pollution that could be a health hazard or pollute the water,” said Akbarifard, sharing that in addition to jewelry, the Zabbaleen create purses, rugs, toys and more. “But they are marginalized and live in poverty. They are not paid for cleaning the streets. So our team, through the M2GATE program, has been working to find a way to get this community the recognition and resources needed, like funding for education or business needs.”
UM-Ann Arbor’s William Davidson Institute (WDI)’s M2GATE program brought together undergraduates from five Michigan universities and their peers in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia to find entrepreneurial solutions to social challenges in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
"M2GATE is a unique virtual exchange program and a wonderful opportunity for students to work cross-culturally, forge new international connections and gain exactly the type of 21st century skills needed to succeed in today’s global economy,” said Amy Gillett, vice president of education at WDI.
The competition began early this year, with 90 teams of students connecting virtually for eight weeks to create a five-minute video about an idea for social entrepreneurship — which is the development, funding and implementation of solutions to social, cultural or environmental issues. More than 400 students, including 39 UM-Dearborn students, successfully completed the program.
“UM-Dearborn students showed strong commitment and dedication to the program. The caliber of their work was high and they had a real appreciation for working cross culturally,” Gillett said. “They also went the extra mile. There was a physical classroom in Ann Arbor used for the first and last session of the program. Instead of joining remotely, which could have been done easily, many UM-Dearborn students showed up to the classroom.”
M2GATE culminated Nov. 14 on UM-Ann Arbor’s campus with the top three teams meeting in person for the first time to participate in the pitch competition, judged by Ross School of Business entrepreneurship professors and startup consultants.
Akbarifard, a psychology major and anthropology minor, said her team originally thought about rooftop gardens — a way to beautify and help reduce pollution in the city — for their M2GATE idea, until one of her teammates, Omar Aboutaleb, shared his interaction with the Zabbaleen.
“Omar had met them and shared that they made beautiful things and helped the Cairo region, but were mistreated. It’s important to note that we want to empower the community, not change their culture,” Akbarifard said, noting that the team's social entrepreneurship idea centers around providing exposure of good done by the community, sharing efficient recycling technologies through a formal education program, and promoting Zabbaleen products, ultimately expanding to an online presence. “Omar bought the jewelry, and he and another teammate spoke with them in person about our project and agreed it may help.”
With the positive reception, the team is currently in talks with interested investors.
Akbarifard said she signed up to learn about other cultures; however, she also learned the key aspects of teamwork.
“There are many creative solutions out there to help others and now I know how to lay it out in order to go from conceptualized to realized,” she said. “No matter our cultural differences, if you work together in a goal-oriented way, you have something in common. And that lays a foundation for greater understanding and friendship.”
The M2GATE program was funded by the Stevens Initiative, an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States, the Middle East and North Africa. The Stevens Initiative has reached 28,000 students in 43 states and 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa; it is funded by several public and private donors including the U.S. Department of State and the Bezos Family Foundation.