When John Eder, an MBA student at Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US, was on a summer internship in Ethiopia giving business training to women with HIV/Aids, he discovered something surprising.

“Some of the women have been selling stuff in the local market for a long time,” he says. “And they’d sit there and talk about principles I learned from my classes. Things my professors had been telling me, they would be telling me – and they never went to any college or had any business training.”

Mr Eder, who was working with the Society of International Missionaries in Addis Ababa, plans to start a business. However, rather than gaining experience through a summer internship at an investment bank or management consultancy, Mr Eder decided to work in a developing country with a non-profit organisation supporting entrepreneurs.

Accenture's programme
© Financial Times

He is not alone. As the appetite among MBA students for courses that address social and environmental problems grows, many are using their summer internship to gain experience in these areas by working with non-profits, non-governmental organisations, or social entrepreneurs.

“There’s a huge appetite for this,” says Gib Bulloch, director of Accenture Development Partnerships, an arm of Accenture that provides services to non-profit groups in developing countries. “You have the international experience that people crave and the emerging markets experience that’s increasingly important to the whole sustainability agenda.”

While assignments at ADP are mainly taken up by Accenture employees who wish to spend time working in an emerging market, the company has in recent years also offered the assignments as internships for undergraduates and MBA students. Students have worked with organisations such as Unicef in New Delhi, the Global Food Banking Network in South Africa and Women’s World Banking in New York.

For some individuals, the choice of this type of internship may be a prelude to a career in the non-profit sector. However, for others, such as Mr Eder, such experience is seen as highly relevant to a career in the business world.

“These are MBAs who have offers from McKinsey, Bain and Deloitte,” says Elmira Bayrasli, head of partnership policy and outreach at Endeavor, a US-based non-profit that identifies and supports entrepreneurs in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, India, Egypt and Jordan.

“But they’d like to have an experience working with a real entrepreneur in an emerging market.”

Through what it calls its eMBA programme, Endeavor selects students from top business schools in the US to spend 10 weeks working with some of the entrepreneurs on its programme. Recruits come from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Columbia business schools. Endeavor is expanding the programme to other schools such as Thunderbird, Chicago and MIT Sloan.

“A lot of the students are going for the first time to these developing economies,” says Ms Bayrasli. “And they’re not just learning about the economy – they’re learning about the culture and the people. Those are things that don’t come into a business school classroom.”

While students working with non-profits or entrepreneurs are gaining knowledge of new markets and ways of doing business, the learning process is two-way. Such organisations recognise that MBA interns provide valuable services to non-profits and social entrepreneurs.

As a result, savvy non-profit organisations have established fellowships or summer programmes that attract MBAs looking for an alternative internship.

Among the first to do so was Ashoka, the pioneering social entrepreneurship non-profit organisation. Last year, Ashoka’s MBA interns worked with small businesses in housing, health, energy, banking and agribusiness on 10-week assignments in Brazil and Mexico.

In addition to giving non-profits or social entrepreneurs access to the business skills of MBA students, some of the organisations offering these kinds of internships have found the programmes bring other benefits too.

At ADP, the internship programme also gives the company a competitive edge when it comes to recruiting talent. “They come back highly motivated and with new skills, but they also tell their whole campus about a different side to Accenture – and they tend to accept job offers,” says Mr Bulloch.

For MBAs, the internships give the opportunity to gain international experience in a very different business context from any they may have encountered at home.

Amy Lin, a Wharton MBA student who spent a summer in the Kenya office of Acumen Fund, which invests in and supports developing country entrepreneurs, found one of the biggest adjustments was working in a resource-stretched environment.

Acumen Fund operates in Kenya
Many MBA students are using their summer internships to gain valuable experience by working abroad with non-profit organisations © Financial Times

“The East Africa office is really small, with only two full-time people and there’s a lot to be done, so there was a lot of sharing work.”

Working without access to the kind of infrastructure and technology taken for granted in mature markets was also a challenge.

However, much of what the MBA students have learned in their first year proves highly relevant to their summer assignments.

“Sometimes when you’re a student, you can lose track of real world applications and this threw me into it right away,” says Ms Lin.

“I had to look at financial models, evaluate whether I believed their assumptions, pick apart a balance sheet and make sure that it fitted with the business model.”

And some of the more intangible lessons MBA students have learned during their time in the developing world have proved extremely powerful. Mr Eder was deeply impressed by the perseverance of the women he was working with – women who, even with access to retroviral drugs, could only count on a limited lifespan.

“They [the women] faced something I had thought was insurmountable but they were just going to keep going. And that’s really healthy for someone who’s going to be an entrepreneur. It’s not a direct business principle, but for me it’s very important for what I’m going to be doing.”

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