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Mens et Manus – mind and hand is the motto for MIT Sloan School of Management and something that is taken particularly seriously at the schools’ Global Entrepreneurship Lab. “Students aren’t thinking so much about getting a job in a big company, they are thinking about how to apply the skills they are learning” says Michellana Jester, manager of the action learning programmes at MIT, and they are able to do this to great effect through the G-lab.

Launched in 2000, G-lab links teams of second-year MBA students with small to medium-sized companies in Africa, China, India, Latin America and southeast Asia. Working in groups of four, the students then share their knowledge, experience and research with these business owners over a set three to four month period – with no fees incurred by the company, aside from airline and accommodation expenses when the students visit for the last three weeks. For the first three months, all the work is done remotely and for free.

In most cases, the companies are looking to make some kind of shift: move to a new market, launch a new product or merge with another company, for example. They also represent an array of industries: an online video portal in Shanghai, an IT outsourcing firm in Bangalore, a health clinic in western Kenya.

To ensure the challenge fits pedagogically, faculty members do an initial vetting of companies. If deemed unsuitable, the school may look into helping another way, however competition is high.

“We source about 10 per cent more companies than we do student teams. Turning them away is very hard but we currently do not have enough resources” says Ms Jester. One faculty member is assigned per four teams and he/she will travel to meet the students when based abroad and speak to the company.

Students also have to compete for a place in the G-lab. It currently has a waiting list of over 40. “Some students come to Sloan because of (G-lab)” says Jester.

Once students have secured their place, the course structure appears to work well. “The online period was very important before on-site” says Olga Yangol, an MBA participant of G-Lab this year who worked with Kimberlit, an environmentally aware fertiliser company in São Paulo, Brazil looking to enter China.

“We didn’t have any experience in the specialised industry of Kimberlit and so we (had time to) do background research … as well as build a rapport with them.”

Sasha Talcott, another MBA student who worked with Kimberlit agrees. “We read through company reports online, which gave us a global perspective of the industry so that when we got to Brazil, we knew the best way to apply a global perspective to the company challenge.”

MIT Sloan provides all online technology and students must be in touch with their companies at least once a week. As most participating companies do not speak English as a first language, barriers are possible. As a result, students are encouraged to ‘over-communicate’ as much as possible. “We advise students to email summaries of their understanding” says Jester. “It’s a dynamic environment, things changing very rapidly with students responding in real-time,” she adds.

Another difficulty can be companies wanting more work done. The projects are very constrained; everything has to be complete within the set time frame so students have to give a clear scope.

However, some companies are very familiar with the lab; 30 per cent come back and have teams of students rotating through their businesses.

Due to the success of G-Lab – which has provided consulting services to more than 250 startup and growing companies since its launch – more labs and action learning programmes have now been created by MIT. These include China Lab and India Lab. About 25 per cent of students take more than one of these courses (they can take up to three) and 70 per cent do at least one.

Ms Yangol has already signed up to another one, something she says she would never have done if G-lab hadn’t provided such a valuable learning curve. “It was one of the highlights of my experience at MIT, I learnt a lot about Brazil, bonded with my team and built strong relationships with the company.”

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