From Silicon Valley to Sarajevo: Putting Innovation Tournaments in the Development Toolbox


Representing over half of the global population, youth are a driving force in today’s economy and will lead tomorrow’s. Each day, new businesses and innovative ideas are brought to life by young people. In the development space, nurturing young entrepreneurs can be a great investment. Many organizations provide business skills training, funding for entrepreneurs with strong business plans, and professional mentorship to help youth around the world overcome the very real barriers to launching an enterprise.

But what would it look like to bring together these objectives in an efficient and effective approach that resonates with youth? A carefully designed and executed innovation tournament can do just this – shaping and sourcing great ideas, providing real-world training with strong incentive alignment, and building an innovation culture hand in hand with key stakeholders. Equally important, the innovation tournament model is highly adaptable to the local environment and can be scaled up or down based on program objectives.

Deloitte tested the innovation tournament model in two particularly challenging contexts – Bosnia and Herzegovina and Jordan – through its social impact fellowship, D2international. Junior consultants partnered with local NGOs Mozaik Foundation (Bosnia) and Leaders of Tomorrow (Jordan) to create innovation tournaments that harnessed the power of youths’ imaginations to address some of the most pressing social challenges in the Balkans and the Middle East. The rich mutual exchange between millennials at Deloitte and in the social sector in Bosnia and Jordan illustrates successful cross-sector collaborations that advance both business and social objectives.

D2international incorporates innovation tournaments for good reason – they work, and they are particularly effective for youth audiences. In large part, this can be attributed to the four pillars described below. While offered in the context of innovation tournaments, each of these pillars is an important learning about engaging youth that can be adopted more broadly in the development space.

1. Source better ideas through competition and exchange

At the earliest stages of innovation, the best idea has not yet been conceived. At later stages, the idea may need constructive critique and refinement. Rather than sourcing business plans and fundable ideas from individuals or teams working in isolation, bring groups together to share and evolve their ideas through friendly competition. Better yet, connect budding entrepreneurs with their global peers who can share professional experience and perspective as neutral observers. Not only does this exchange help strengthen good ideas, but it takes the first steps in building a support structure that lasts beyond the initial funding stage.

2. Grow participants’ skill sets in non-simulation environment

We know that active learning can be more effective than lecture, and that simulations are helpful in achieving training objectives. To take it a step further, put real stakes in the game. Make the “training” personal by linking it with real-world social outcomes. D2international’s innovation tournaments in Bosnia and Jordan asked participants to address the challenges they saw every day in their local communities – unemployment, natural disaster recovery, and equal opportunity to education and jobs – challenges for which they were the “experts”. Participants who are asked to solve real problems in their communities, rather than just learning from books, can absorb the training in a way that is authentic and actionable.

3. Break down participants’ mental barriers

Equally if not more important than skills training for young entrepreneurs are confidence building and accessible role models. Design programs that challenge participants while also giving them a taste of success. In the innovation tournament model, facilitators give participants confidence with a structured, iterative approach to idea development. Facilitators also prepare participants to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges (possibly in a non-native language), which for many is a first-in-a-lifetime experience. Addressing the soft skills and intangibles of entrepreneurship helps ensure that youth have the self-efficacy to apply the hard business skills as well.

4. Jumpstart an innovation culture

Moving the needle on youth entrepreneurship and innovation is a long-term play. While working toward short- and medium-term development outcomes, seek opportunities to build self-sustaining communities that drive long-term value. This means bringing in a variety of stakeholders and creating space for relationships to form. Bring in possible allies and partners, mentors, donors, and even other young entrepreneurs to share and learn. Not only is this community a source of first-line support, but its ripple effects initiate a larger cultural shift.

Entrepreneurship is tough. Programs that support youth at the early stages of entrepreneurship can simultaneously source investable ideas while also growing the larger skills base and entrepreneurial culture through relatively simple mechanisms. In countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina that face nearly 60% youth unemployment and have few role models for entrepreneurs, this approach is critical. It is already working, so that perhaps in time we will look for innovation not in Silicon Valley, but in Sarajevo.