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As relief efforts continue across Asia in the wake of the tsunami disaster students in the US are returning from the winter break and putting their heads together to come up with ways of contributing to the region’s recovery. But while fundraising and volunteering efforts are a big part of this, some business school faculty see potential for incorporating rebuilding efforts into student work that has a bearing on their studies.

The initial response to the disaster has been a drive by students to help survivors. Like many schools, Stanford Graduate School of Business, which lost one of its students, James Hsu, in the disaster, has launched a fundraising effort, with a target of $50,000 for the student body, or about $70 per student.

Other initiatives are focusing on volunteering. The Wharton International Volunteer Programme is, for example, considering adding two projects in tsunami-hit areas to its annual line-up. It helps organisations with, among other things, strategic planning, market assessments, cash-flow management and marketing plans.

“We’re figuring out how best we can help,” says Keith Raper, co-president of the programme. “And it seems we could help people get their businesses back off the ground.” Tuck School of Business is considering creating internships for students with relief organisations. Leading the effort at Tuck is Saikat Dey, a second-year student from Bangalore, India, who believes MBA students can bring valuable knowledge to bear on the rebuilding efforts.

“In these communities there’s usually one profession that sustains a whole village – in southern India, that’s often fishing – so one key skill an MBA student can contribute is awareness beyond the obvious to help people to become aware of the opportunities beyond fishing,” he says. “And within fishing itself, there’s micro-credit and the ability to generate a self-sustaining economy.”

However, as well as spearheading internships or voluntary initiatives, some schools are formulating projects in tsunami-hit areas that could relate directly to students’ MBA studies. Tuck is planning to send at least one six-member team to the area next year to assist with rebuilding in a project for which students will receive course credit. The programme will be run along the lines of the school’s regular international project work, except that teams will be assisting non-profit organisations rather than corporations.

“It will be at the ground level, working with people who are trying to help human beings on a very direct basis,” says Paul Danos, Tuck dean. “So it’s going to be on the other side of the spectrum. But all of this is a learning experience – you have the team, the project and a fixed period of time to complete in and you learn about other cultures – it’s all good stuff.”

But while working in a disaster area may be a new experience for many students, they are certainly not unfamiliar with the non-profit world. In recent years demand among students has increased for involvement in social investment programmes or the projects of non-profit organisations.

Schools have responded. Many now offer programmes or electives in non-profit management. Others have introduced initiatives such as the Stern Consulting Corps – an extensive internship programme through which MBA students at New York University’s Stern School of Business work as consultants to non-profit organisations around the city. At some business schools, projects also take students to developing countries. Each year at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, students participating in the Kellogg Global Initiatives in Management programme conduct field research around the world, looking at issues such as how to bring healthcare to the rural poor in Brazil or how to reduce pollution in China.

Dipak Jain, Kellogg’s dean, sees potential for business schools to undertake similar project work in tsunami-hit areas. “In addition to the fundraising and volunteer efforts, there is a more strategic role that business schools can play in the rebuilding of tsunami-hit regions,” he says. “Business schools can serve as a resource for the governments, the local industry and the multinational companies impacted by the tsunami.”

Prof Jain believes that students’ crisis management skills could prove particularly valuable to Asian countries struggling to cope with the disaster. At Kellogg, all MBA students are required to take Values and Crisis Decision Making, a course that culminates in a 24-hour crisis management simulation. “Business school helps students build the skills required to assess a complex situation and to develop an appropriate solution.”

MIT Sloan School of Management also sees MBA students’ skills as being applicable to Asian recovery efforts. It has been focusing on prospects for tourism in the region. It is considering the possibility of sending students to work with the hotel industry on appropriate marketing programmes to help get the tourism industry back on its feet.

“Some of the beaches and resorts in Phuket were not destroyed and they rely solely on tourism for their livelihood,” says David Capodilupo, executive director of MBA programmes at MIT Sloan. “How can they get back on their feet and encourage tourists to go there in the wake of all of this? It’s a marketing dilemma.”

However, he stresses that great care has to be taken in formulating appropriate programmes. “We’re working with our students and alumni to see what the needs assessment is,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

News in depth: Asian earthquake

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