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MBA Students Cultivate Success in Developing Nations

MBA students go abroadDo these job offers sound tempting to you? Work for a year in the steamy marshes of Southeast Asia getting a shrimp farm up and running. Head to rural Ethiopia to work with agricultural waste and biomass. Labor in the hot sun in Equatorial Guinea starting a gas and oil extraction industry.

To most young professionals, these situations probably aren't ideal. So why are graduates from some of the United States' top ranked business schools lining up for the opportunity to do these jobs for a year or more for no salary?

It's part of a trend of MBA students, recent graduates and even established business professionals focusing their knowledge of finance, business and supply-chain economics on problems facing the developing world. For some, their goal is to simply help people who are struggling. For others, working pro bono on an economic development project in the Third World is a chance for them to test their ideas and gain some international experience.

For many, though, it's a chance to build something from the ground up, create jobs and products where they are sorely needed, and to apply all the knowledge they gained in a way that can save lives and give struggling people a hand up instead of a handout.

Business schools go global

And now business schools across the country are establishing international programs, projects, competitions and research centers that introduce MBA students to the challenges of working in the developing world. Increasingly, the focus at MBA schools is on social responsibility and building sustainable markets where none exists. Courses on microfinance, society, corporate responsibility, and social, environmental and ethical issues are on the rise.

According to the magazine Foreign Policy, more than 200 graduate schools now offer courses on international development, where students analyze foreign markets and possibly even visit other countries to work on real-life challenges. Here's just a few of the institutions putting students to work overseas:

  • The University of Virginia Darden School of Business gives students the opportunity to learn about global social innovation through its Global Field Experiences, which allow second-year students to travel to both established and developing foreign countries to conceptualize and build sustainable businesses. In Tunisia, for instance, Darden students developed business plans for a new health care services accreditation agency.
  • At Stanford, a two-quarter class called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability pairs MBA students with engineering students to design and build products that will work cheaply in a Third-World economy. One team developed a portable incubator. Another built a pedal-driven pellet mill that produces cooking fuel from biomass and agricultural waste. The course involves trips to places like Rwanda, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Nepal to interview subsistence farmers, millers and shopkeepers, and to see first-hand how people work and what they need to live better.
  • The Global Business School Network holds an annual contest that allows business students to highlight how they used their skills to impact lives in the developing world. Last year's winners were from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, where a group of students and professors visited Haiti and came up with an architectural plan to build 100 houses over the span of five years. The "$300 House Project" has since been expanded to India, and has resulted in the development of such innovative products as an inexpensive, sturdy and waterproof roofing tile to replace the corrugated metal roofs often used in Third World slums.
  • One of the nation's oldest international consulting programs, the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, sent 26 teams of students to various foreign countries to get "on-the-ground experience" building new companies, including a shrimp farm in Cambodia and business training for women in Saudi Arabia.

Graduates putting their MBA to good use

While students are getting experience working in foreign countries through these and other like-minded programs, recent graduates and experienced businesspeople are doing similar work through such organizations as MBAs Without Borders; its parent organization, CDC Development Solutions; the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH); and the MBA Enterprise Corps. CDC, for example, matches MBA graduates with clients in the emerging market. These clients range from nongovernmental organizations and government agencies to foundations and small businesses. All the MBA holder typically gets for a 6- to 12-month assignment is a living stipend and help with airfare and housing.

According to Business Week, an average of 100 applicants vie for each short-term post with MBAs Without Borders. Since 1990, the organization has placed more than 1,000 experienced MBA graduates in pro-bono assignments lasting from three months to a year. In light of growing interest, CDC has increased its number of projects from 10 a year to 20. Applications to the MBA Enterprise Corps from some schools, such as the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business, are similarly on the rise.

While many MBA graduates simply want to do some good in the world, others are looking to gain valuable international development experience that will help them stand out in the highly competitive market for consulting jobs. Good jobs in the corporate or private sector often require experience in a certain region or culture. In some cases, a pro-bono assignment in a developing country gives the graduates experience they need to break into a new industry. Many remain overseas, working with people in the network they developed there, or working for the nonprofit organization that helped fund their original assignment.

"For 20+ years MBA students have applied business skills to overseas consulting through the International Business Development course," University of California, Berkeley, http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/strategicplan/culture/lti/20-years-mba-students-have-applied-business-skills.html
"Recruitment Planning," Graduate Management Admission Council, 2013, http://www.gmac.com/~/media/Files/gmac/Research/prospective-student-data/2013-prosp-student-survey-recruitment-planning.pdf
"MBA students impacting lives in developing countries - MBA+ Challenge Video Contest," PRiMEtime blog, February 11, 2013, Giselle Weybrecht, http://primetime.unprme.org/2013/02/11/mba-students-impacting-lives-in-developing-countries-mba-challenge-video-contest/
"Changing the World, One MBA at a Time," Business Week, April 26, 2010, Alison Damast, http://www.businessweek.com/bschools/content/apr2010/bs20100426_563463.htm#p2
"Get an MBA, Save the World," Foreign Policy, April 23, 2012, Charles Kenny, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/get_an_mba_save_the_world
"Students Design Products for People in Developing Countries," Stanford University, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/mba-headlines/bmag/sbsm0909/feature-design.html
"MBAs Without Borders: Have Degree, Will Travel," Business Week, Feb. 5, 2013, Erin Zlomek, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-02-05/mbas-without-borders-have-degree-will-travel
"U.Va. Darden School Students Embark on Global Field Experiences," Newswise, Jan. 3, 2013, http://www.newswise.com/articles/u-va-darden-school-students-embark-on-global-field-experiences