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Hundreds of students from around the world on 68 finalist teams converged on UD in April for the annual Diamond Challenge summit.
Hundreds of students from around the world on 68 finalist teams converged on UD in April for the annual Diamond Challenge summit.

Global entrepreneurs

Photos by Haley Hansen

Diamond Challenge brings student entrepreneurs from around the world to UD

The loud energy driven by a crowd of young people in the University of Delaware’s Clayton Hall on April 27 represented the built-up enthusiasm of a three-day summit — and also the culmination of months of hard work. 

“I want it to sink in for all of you how incredibly important this accomplishment is … if you don’t walk away with a big check or a small check, you still made it,” emcee Maggie Nelson told the crowd. 

That might sound like a typical remark to make people feel good for participating and doing their best, but Nelson, the program coordinator for youth programs at UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, was referring to Horn’s Diamond Challenge. Getting to Newark represented much more than a participation badge. 

To earn the right to attend the Diamond Challenge, the final stage of a global innovation and entrepreneurship contest for high school students, participants on 940 teams had to make it through months of preliminary competition that narrowed the field to a mere 68. 

The Diamond Challenge started in 2012 with 100 participants from Delaware and Kenya. This year, more than 2,600 students participated. They came from the U.S., Canada, China, the United Arab Emirates and more — 30 states and 56 countries altogether. In its history, the Diamond Challenge has reached more than 18,000 students from more than 120 countries.  

The aim is to build a worldwide partnership that instills entrepreneurial values, according to Dan Freeman, Horn’s founding director and associate professor of marketing.  

“I think there’s a misconception around entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education, that it’s just about starting new small businesses,” he said. That’s part of it, but “it’s really about the mindset, the skill set and the means to persistently challenge the status quo.” 

The Diamond Challenge gives students agency to take action on their ideas, Freeman said. 

It’s also a hub, Nelson said. Horn’s international partner organizations are reaching a growing number of young people themselves. 

“We’re intentionally partnering with those that we know can amplify that message,” she said. 

That kind of creative and change-making thinking was on display in April. One example: Team Exotech, which would go on to win a top prize, wowed contestants and judges alike with their presentation of an artificial-intelligence-enhanced artificial hand that could respond to brain signals, helping stroke patients in their rehabilitation. They explained that the technology could be adapted for use with other limbs as well. Their polished presentation included testimonials from health institutions and a doctor who had reviewed the product. 

Not all ideas end up hitting the market, but the students take the challenge very seriously, said Felicia Harrington, Horn’s assistant director of youth programs. 

She pointed to a team from 2022, Clore, which is now marketing and selling a fire retardant spray to proactively protect homes in areas vulnerable to wildfires. The founders are now expanding and considering venture capital offers, she said. 

That won’t be the case with everyone, but, “I think many of them will go on to do entrepreneurial things, whether or not it’s their exact Diamond Challenge idea,” she said.

The Diamond Challenge offers young entrepreneurs the chance to talk to experts and learn from their experience.
The Diamond Challenge offers young entrepreneurs the chance to talk to experts and learn from their experience.

Diamond Challenge competitors also get to meet like-minded, motivated people their age, from much more diverse backgrounds than is typical for high school students, Harrington said. 

“It’s been a very pleasurable experience,” Antonio Dominguez, a senior at the International School of Panama, said of the 2024 event. Dominguez represented a team working on VOTA Panama, which aims to help inform voters in that country. (It later won a Horn prize for social innovation). 

“I’ve managed to meet a lot of different talented individuals, a lot of passionate youth,” he said. “We want to make a change in the world.”

“I think it’s super important, especially for students from Delaware and the surrounding area, to have that global perspective,” Freeman said.

The Diamond Challenge also puts Delaware, and its flagship University, on the map. 

“[It’s] a great way for [contestants] to get connected and understand there’s great things happening here at UD,” Harrington said. 

Freeman said former competitors have enrolled in Lerner and UD’s other colleges. 

“Part of our goal is to try to bring creative, innovative and entrepreneurial students into every major at the University,” he said. 

The final summit event isn’t just about making pitches to judges. It also builds in chances to socialize and learn. Competitors were able to relax with cornhole and a giant Jenga set. At informational sessions, they could hear how to enhance their customer research with generative AI or listen to a panel of investors who shared insights on what venture capital firms are looking for. 

Team leaders benefit as well. Allwyn Bryner, an innovation teacher at the International School of Panama who led Dominguez’s team, said teachers promoting experiential learning can often feel isolated or discouraged. 

“But when I come here and I see kids pitching the next-level ideas that can change lives, it just warms my heart,” he said. 

He called the Diamond Challenge a chance to reset and rebuild his passion, and he’s trying to spread the word about it in Latin America. 

Bryner, who is originally from India and has worked all over the world, said the contest can also be life-changing for students, giving them opportunities and connections they otherwise wouldn’t have. The prize money alone, he said, can go a long way, especially in other economies. Top winners in the contest earn $12,000. 

“The biggest reason why I love Diamond Challenge over any other high school challenge, hands down, is the feedback,” Bryner said. Teams get valuable input from the judges on what to work on from the early stages. “That’s the game changer.” 

Freeman thanked the many judges who provided that input throughout the contest, along with the corporate sponsors. 

“A program like this cannot happen without robust support from the broader community,” he said. 

Read more about the Diamond Challenge, including a list of winners, on the Lerner College website.

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