Tag Archives: Diamond Challenge

The Power of Stories

On Saturday, I used Oprah Winfrey’s magnificent recent speech at the Golden Globes to teach a group of Moldovan high school students about the power of stories.

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I was leading a workshop to prepare them for pitches they’ll be giving next weekend at the annual Diamond Challenge competition for young entrepreneurs, which several of us have been supporting as Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of the students knew about Oprah (who doesn’t?), so they were interested when I showed how she began her remarks on the #MeToo movement:

“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: ‘The winner is Sidney Poitier.’ Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses.”


Oprah used that story to establish a personal connection with her audience, emotionally as well as intellectually. She then continued to tell stories, notably about Recy Taylor, a young black mother who was raped in Alabama by “brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

Like millions of people watching back home, I found Oprah’s words deeply moving. As a former speechwriter, I also admired how she celebrated the power of our own voices. In her case, she praised “all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”


As I told the students on Saturday, effective speeches often open with personal examples. I showed them videos of previous Moldovan teams that won Diamond Challenge competitions. All of them began with members describing how they faced a problem themselves, leading them to develop a product or service to overcome it.

IMG_1152I also discussed speech-making generally and the particular format of entrepreneurial pitches. I divided the students into groups to practice their presentations, as you can see in the photos here.

My main point was that humans make judgments with both their heads and their hearts. You usually can’t convince them only with statistics and rational arguments, although those are important, too. You need to make them care.

IMG_1144When I was running a university communications office before joining the Peace Corps, I used to tell scientists and professors the same thing, as in this 2014 article in Inside Higher Ed. I urged them to “come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories.” Instead of trying to dazzle us with their intellects, I said, they should share their own experiences: “If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can’t afford the medication you prescribed.”

I believe this passionately. For better or worse, humans make sense of the world through stories. It’s why I tell stories on this blog.

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Here’s another rhetorical technique I love: Closing a blog post or speech by circling back to the opening sentence. In fact, I’ll do that now by turning again to Oprah, who closed her Golden Globes speech by saying, “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon!” See, she did it, too.

Few of us will ever speak as brilliantly as Oprah Winfrey. However, we all can learn from her, whether it’s for an international entrepreneurship competition, a business conference or a local meeting. If you want to convince your audience, make them care. Tell them a story.


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More for Entrepreneurs

Moldova’s entrepreneurship scene keeps getting bigger.

I’ve written previously about the Dreamups Innovation Campus and the Diamond Challenge competition for high school students, in which the team I mentored claimed one of the top prizes this year.


On Sunday, Champa and I visited Tekwill, a center that opened in March in northern Chișinău. It’s an educational and entrepreneurial hub with coworking spaces, a pre-acceleration program, startup competitions, events and resources ranging from 3D printers to international guest speakers.

Tekwill is among a growing list of local entrepreneurial and startup resources here that now includes iHUB, Generator Hub, Dreamups, 404 Moldova and GEN Moldova.


“Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, is among many cities around the world that aspire to develop a startup scene of their own,” Sergiu Matei, one of the founders of Dreamups, wrote recently on Startup Grind. “To be sure, no one will mistake it yet for Silicon Valley, much less Boston, Paris or Shanghai. Yet its entrepreneurial scene has quietly begun to emerge over the past couple of years, and it’s been exciting to watch.”

Sergiu concluded: “It’s not a fantasy to believe some of the world’s great new startups can and will emerge from Moldova, especially with such a strong entrepreneurial support system now starting up and growing every day.”

Tekwill is an important new component in that system. Located on the campus of the  Technical University of Moldova, it launched with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Government of Sweden (through the Swedish International Development Agency), within the Moldova ICT Excellence Center Project.


Sara Hoy, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, has been assisting Tekwill and other technology-based programs, with a special interest in attracting girls to the field. You can see Sara here, between two Moldovan friends, at Moldova’s first-ever Mini Maker Faire organized by Atelier 99 and held at Tekwill on Sunday.

Maker Faire organizes gatherings around the world, often in the Bay Area and other high-tech hot spots. It’s a modern mashup of science fairs, craft festivals and tech enthusiasts. The photos in this post are all from the fair, where Champa and I watched a virtual reality demonstration, listened to talks on starting a business, spoke with inventors and checked out gifts ranging from educational games to jewelry made from computer chips.

IMG_5183Tekwill focuses on information technology, working with students, professors and others who need help transforming a good idea into a successful business. With its educational programs, modern facilities, mentoring and international connections, it seeks to create high-quality jobs to deter so many Moldovans from leaving the country to pursue their dreams.

The entrepreneurs I met at Tekwill, like Moldova’s other entrepreneurs and innovators in civil society and diverse other sectors, represent the best in a country where one too often encounters despair about the economy, politics, corruption and other problems. For me, at least, their spirit is a booster shot of optimism, a reminder that change really is possible. As their entrepreneurial scene continues to grow, so does hope for Moldova’s future.



Diamond Challenge Finals

Aspiring young entrepreneurs from across Moldova competed in the final round of Diamond Challenge. They pitched their ideas, hoping to win $1,000 and a trip to America. The team I mentored, buk, finished second in the business category. You can see them in the video below (on YouTube at https://youtu.be/v74RjurF3EU). Who finished first? Watch and be inspired.

Team BUK


Forget the upcoming Super Bowl. What I am super-excited about right now is whether the three teenagers you see here will win the final round of Diamond Challenge Moldova on Saturday.


That’s Elizabet on the left, Lucia and Victor. They are three of the most talented and inspiring young people I have ever met — anywhere. I’ve been mentoring their team and will be cheering for them as they vie for the top prize in Moldova’s showcase for aspiring entrepreneurs.

If they win, they will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs in Delaware.

img_2024I’ve been meeting with Team BUK regularly for several months, helping them develop and refine their business plan. However, they came up with the ideas and have done all of the work — lots and lots of work. Like the five other finalists in their category, they will now deliver their final pitch in English before a team of judges. They and the other teams attended a training sesson two weeks ago where I described how to do this effectively. All of the teams were impressive and it was fun to work with them.

I’m not discussing our team’s business idea or pitch strategy until after the finals. For now, I ask you to join me in sending good wishes in their direction. That’s what two Duke students, Kiara and Sydney, did with my former colleague Sonja Foust several weeks ago when they unexpectedly sent me this special version of The Week at Duke in 60 Seconds, which I helped to create. Play it to the end for their surprise for Lucia, Elizabet and Victor. It’s been a joy to work with the three of them, no matter how the competition turns out. (The video is also at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj5zHX_S7CY.)

Preparing Their Pitches


The students you see in this post represent Moldova’s brightest hopes for the future.

They are optimistic in a country where many people are pessimistic. They want to start businesses and help others. They are overflowing with great ideas, and they are brave enough to present them on a stage in front of a group of judges — in English.


They are the finalists in this year’s Diamond Challenge Moldova, a competition for high school students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. On Jan. 28, seven student teams will vie to be named the best “social venture,” and six others will compete for the best business idea. Both winning teams will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs competition in Delaware.img_8650

On Sunday, I led a workshop to help the teams sharpen their public speaking skills and pitches. Joining me were several other Peace Corps volunteers who have been mentoring teams, helping to select the finalists and organizing the competition as a whole. I have been mentoring one of the teams myself and will be cheering for them in the finals.

Nearly 2,000 students from around the world have participated in Diamond Challenge since it launched in 2012. Moldovan students have done very well in the competition, with two teams making it to the finals last year. Do It For Bunica won the $10,000 grand prize in the social venture competition with its project to connect expatriate Moldovan workers with teenagers back home who can help care for their aging parents.

Another Moldovan team won the social impact prize a year earlier with its idea of producing clothing with reflective thread that can be seen by seen at night by cars driving along dangerous country roads.

Peace Corps volunteer Chris Flowers, center, and Ana Mirza of A.O. INVENTO organized Sunday’s workshop and many of the other activities for Diamond Challenge Moldova.

Both of those earlier teams gave excellent pitches, which I showed on Sunday, helping the current students learn the best ways of persuading judges, investors or others. My other sources ranged from the television show “Shark Tank” to President Obama to Guy Kawasaki, the renown Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The students will be making their own final pitches before a new group of Moldovan and American judges at the Dreamups Innovation Campus, the local entrepreneurship center about which I’ve written previously.


Peronally, if someone had asked me when I was in high school to speak publicly in a foreign language, I would have been terrified. That’s why I also showed this hilarious video with Steve Martin, to help the students relax. I’ll post again after the finals to tell you how their presentations turned out. Based on what I saw at the workshop, I expect them to be terrific.