Conclusion of Kirkland & Ellis LLP Investigation

See below for a statement from Martha Doyle, Interim CEO, Hult Prize Foundation. If you have any questions, please reach out to hello@hultprize.org.

Dear Hult Prize Community,

Two months ago, we shared with you that at this past summer’s Hult Prize Accelerator serious allegations of misconduct, including sexual misconduct, had come to our attention.

 

At that time, we committed ourselves to supporting those who bravely came forward to report their experiences and to encouraging others to come forward. We also committed to taking immediate actions to examine our organization and confront how such deeply troubling events could have occurred. Only in doing so could we understand the past and gain the insights needed to rebuild the Hult Prize Foundation and to honor its important mission.

 

We immediately retained the international law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations of misconduct. We also engaged Lisa Wilding QC, an independent barrister based in the United Kingdom, who advised on the investigation and the necessary organizational reforms based on the findings. To support the investigation, we also asked you, the Hult Prize community, to confidentially share any relevant information.

 

The Independent Investigation

 

We granted Kirkland & Ellis unfettered access to any requested documents, records, and other information. Additionally, we granted them access to all current and former employees and other individuals associated with Hult Prize. Kirkland & Ellis created a reporting mechanism for individuals to share their experiences directly with them without disclosing their identities to any Hult Prize staff.

 

Over the course of the two-month investigation, investigators interviewed more than 65 individuals, including Hult Prize staff, participants, volunteers, mentors, and judges. They also reviewed over 12,000 documents and other electronic communications, including text and social media messages. Kirkland & Ellis had full discretion and authority to pursue all leads and to develop and implement their own investigation methods. The Kirkland & Ellis team also contacted local law enforcement in the U.K. to inform them of the investigation.

 

We are deeply grateful to the many members of the Hult Prize community who came forward to participate in the investigation. We also thank the Kirkland & Ellis team and Lisa Wilding QC for the thoroughness of their work.

 

Summary of Key Findings

 

Allegations of Sexual Misconduct

 

The investigation revealed multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that occurred in connection with Hult Prize events from 2018 to 2021. These allegations ranged in severity from unwanted sexual advances and touching to sexual assault, with the alleged victims consisting of Hult Prize staff, participants, volunteers, and mentors. Former Hult Prize CEO Ahmad Ashkar was identified in multiple instances of alleged sexual misconduct. Three former Hult Prize staff members, and three individuals who previously served as competition mentors were also alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct. Former Chief Operating Officer Charlemagne Quinitio and former Chief of Staff Nelly Andrade, who were terminated for failing to meet the standards expected of Hult Prize senior leaders, were not implicated by alleged victims in sexual misconduct.

 

The individuals who shared these accounts were assured anonymity and confidentiality. In respecting their privacy, we want to be absolutely clear that the details of these accounts are nothing short of heartbreaking, particularly for an organization that prides itself on enacting positive change for people around the world.

 

The individuals implicated in these accounts violated everything the Hult Prize stands for. We extend our deepest sympathies to all of those affected and apologize for the organizational shortcomings that failed to prevent these acts. We are devastated and we accept responsibility for not living up to the trust our community placed in us.

 

Failure of Hult Prize Leadership

 

The investigation determined that the pervasiveness of the alleged misconduct demonstrated a complete failure of leadership by senior Hult Prize staff. There were several organizational failures that contributed to an environment that lacked the standards, policies, and oversight necessary to help prevent misconduct.

 

The investigation revealed a high-stress and high-stakes competitive atmosphere combined with a culture that involved excessive alcohol consumption. Certain senior Hult Prize staff encouraged and participated in this excessive drinking, including procuring hard alcohol on their own and distributing it.

 

The Kirkland & Ellis team also concluded that the Hult Prize organization, which started as a grassroots, student-led effort, never instituted meaningful organizational policies and controls despite its growth. Neither employees nor other individuals representing the Hult Prize, such as volunteers, mentors, and judges, received training or guidance about behavior or community expectations; policies did not exist to govern topics like sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation; and no reporting mechanisms existed for employees or other individuals to escalate their concerns.

 

The investigation found that the organization operated with too much trust in Hult Prize management and without meaningful supervision or oversight, particularly over the actions and conduct of Mr. Ashkar. In turn, Mr. Ashkar abused that trust and wielded excessive and unchecked power over employees’ careers and over participants’ likelihood to succeed in the competition and beyond, which cultivated a culture of fear. Mr. Ashkar leveraged his position, charisma, and business connections to create an insulated atmosphere where he could act without consequence. The investigation did not identify any instance where Hult Prize leadership informed anyone outside of the organization or even its own Board of Directors of any concerns related to sexual misconduct, until Accelerator attendees came forward in September of 2021 with the reports that prompted this investigation.

 

Competition Integrity

 

During the investigation, many questions were raised to the Kirkland & Ellis team regarding the overall integrity of the 2021 selection process. The concerns centered around potential undisclosed conflicts of interest, as well as members of the Hult Prize staff having the potential to influence which teams advanced in the competition. While Kirkland & Ellis’s findings are consistent with the lack of organizational structure and controls identified through the investigation, we were unable to identify evidence that would conclusively support changing the 2021 finalist teams.

 

Hult Prize Reforms

 

In order to move forward, we have taken a long, hard look at what happened. We hope that by taking robust actions to address what we learned, we can begin to reform the Hult Prize so that it is once again a life-changing force of good for people around the world.

 

We want to share with you the actions Hult Prize has already taken:

 

  • We have replaced the entire Hult Prize senior leadership team with individuals committed to the highest professional and ethical values.

  • We hired Lori van Dam, a long-serving philanthropic leader in the U.S., as our new Chief Operating Officer. Lori has 30 years of service in the international education and nonprofit sectors and is charged with ensuring that the Foundation moves forward with the utmost integrity.

  • We will no longer work with the mentors or judges identified as having participated in, or having had knowledge of, any alleged misconduct.

  • We have implemented an ethics hotline staffed 24/7 by a professional vendor for anonymous reporting of any alleged misconduct, available via:

    • Web: www.lighthouse-services.com/hult

    • Phone:

      • English speaking USA and Canada: 855-222-5175

      • Spanish speaking USA and Canada: 800-216-1288

      • French speaking Canada: 855-725-0002

      • Spanish speaking Mexico: 01-800-681-5340

      • All other countries: 800-603-2869 (must dial country access code first; click here for access codes and dialing instructions)

    • E-mail: reports@lighthouse-services.com (include company name “hult” with report)

    • Anonymous Reporting App (keyword “hult”, instructions here)

In addition, the Hult Prize is committed to implementing the following changes:

 

  • We will establish a Governance & Ethics Committee to guide our reforms as we move forward, advise the Foundation, and serve as an independent resource for stakeholders.

  • We will adopt a Hult Prize Code of Conduct that all individuals associated with the Hult Prize will be required to follow both in letter and in spirit.

  • We are in the process of hiring a dedicated human resources specialist who will also be an additional channel for reporting concerns.

  • We will introduce new rules for all events, including policies regarding alcohol consumption.

  • We will implement mandatory compliance training for all Hult Prize staff, mentors, and judges, as well as training for volunteers and participants in Hult Prize events.

  • We will develop a new judging rubric and standards for all future competitions to ensure consistency and fairness.

 

Conclusion

 

As we move forward, we will focus on what has made Hult Prize so inspiring over the years: its mission of empowering students to make a positive impact on the world. Participants from around the globe have come together every year to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges, and we are committed to making sure that important work continues. We will do this while remembering the lessons learned during this difficult time, implementing the needed reforms, and working to rebuild trust within our community.

 

We thank our global community of dedicated participants, volunteers, mentors, judges, and staff for your steadfast commitment to Hult Prize. I am incredibly optimistic and hopeful for a future where Hult Prize can grow, thrive, and create opportunities that change lives – not only for participants, but for the millions of people around the world who benefit from their work.

 

With your continuing support, we look forward to building a strong future for Hult Prize together. Please reach out to me directly at martha@hultprize.org should you have questions or need support of any kind.

 

Sincerely,

Martha H. Doyle

Interim CEO
Hult Prize Foundation