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For Ria Tobaccowala, a Chicago native studying in New York, arriving in the fast-growing southern Ethiopian city of Hawassa was a revelation.
“The first plants are going up, the first airport is being constructed and the first non-dirt roads are being built,” she says. “Seeing how that’s impacting people’s lives was eye-opening.”
Tobaccowala, who is studying for a dual MBA/MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree at New York University, had spent the previous three months working with four classmates on a strategic plan to protect a swath of land in Hawassa, 175 miles south of Addis Ababa, the capital. Their objective was to shield Hawassa’s lake from dangerous pollutants, create a public park and bolster local infrastructure to support the city’s expansion.
When the team arrived in April, Tobaccowala and her teammates had just a week to finish their proposal before sharing their ideas with Pewodros Gebiba, the city’s mayor.
The group’s biggest priority, though, was to “get an understanding of what it’s like to live in a place that’s going through such rapid economic growth”.
As MBA programmes around the world attempt to impart a global outlook to their students, such understanding is precisely the goal. “I came to business school to become a well-rounded, empathetic global leader,” Tobaccowala says. “I want to understand the changes taking place in the global economy, not just what’s going on in downtown Manhattan.”
At the end of the project, the students presented their proposals to the mayor. Their plan involves the creation of an environmental buffer zone to preserve Lake Hawassa and the large expanse of land that surrounds it, and the development of a commercial boulevard to increase access to the city.
Sarada Anne, an MBA student from Hyderabad, was part of the team. “In the beginning, we didn’t know what was possible,” she says. “But by the end of our time there, we all felt incredibly invested in the city. We provided a forward-thinking plan for this city to save its beautiful lake and set itself up for sustainable industrialisation.”
Yimegnushal Tadesse is Hawassa’s city manager and worked with the group. “I am really impressed by the students’ work,” she says. “They grasped almost all the challenges that our lake is facing.”
In 2011, NYU’s Stern School of Business launched a series of “signature projects” — experiential learning courses on which MBA students work closely with faculty members to tackle complex challenges. Over the past five years, more than 100 students have taken part in 25 projects in countries including Israel, Haiti, Columbia and Mexico.
Participation in the projects “widens students’ perspective of humanity”, says Shlomo “Solly” Angel, a professor at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Planning. “Projects like this have nothing to do with making money,” he says. “They have to do with students getting acquainted with people who are so different from them in terms of culture, income and outlook.”
Immersing students in unfamiliar, challenging situations provides a stark contrast to the traditional MBA curriculum, he says, adding that even today some business education can be “fairly theoretical”. “Even the case studies are at arm’s length. We want them to be involved in something real that has real consequences and that affects people’s lives.”
The growth of such projects comes at a time of changing priorities in business education. Some MBA students are rejecting the conventional post-business-school career path in favour of professional lives that involve “giving back” and greater work-life balance. A study of MBA students and graduates conducted last year by Bain & Company, the consultancy, found that more than half said they intended to prioritise social “impact” over prestige and financial benefits in their jobs.
In response, business schools are embracing the mantra of “doing well by doing good”.
“The millennials, whether they articulate it or not, want to be part of something larger than themselves,” says Prof Angel. “And we [as schools] are not just about creating the next generation of profit-maximising business leaders.”
Located in the Great Rift Valley, Hawassa has seen a swift rise in population as it changes from a rural region to an industrial city. Local officials estimate that the number of residents reached 351,000 in 2016. Its growth rate between 2000 and 2010 is estimated at more than 6 per cent annually, though officials believe this has accelerated since.
The aim of the project was to propose ways the city could balance the competing priorities of conservation and economic growth, says Prof Angel. “We wanted to build the capacity and knowledge” of Hawassa’s modestly sized team of city planners and “help them gain control over an environmentally sensitive area so that it doesn’t get run over by developers”, he adds.
Before the students arrived in Ethiopia, they researched local business practices studied the city’s policies on land use and zoning. The team also explored the ways in which other municipalities have dealt with similar issues and prepared a preliminary budget for their proposal.
Communication with and inside Ethiopia can be difficult. Internet penetration in the country hovers around 11 per cent, according to UN data. “There was limited information, which made the research extremely tough,” says Patrick Lamson-Hall, an urban planner and research scholar at the Stern urbanisation project who advised the students. “It was hard to identify how realistic [the students’ initial ideas] were.”
But that is the nature of real-world learning, he says. “In a project like this one the outcomes are not predetermined.”
Students quickly work with the ambiguity of the situation, adds Lamson-Hall. “International development work requires a strong stomach for uncertainty,” he says. “For the students, that caused a bit of anxiety at first. But once they got on the ground in Ethiopia, saw the lake, walked on the land and met the people that wanted the park . . . their trepidation and anxiety subsided.”
Yimegnushal Tadesse, the city manager, says there is a high probability that the proposal will be implemented, provided the city can raise the necessary funding.
“The regional government, the city administration and the city’s residents have a great concern to protect the lake and its ecosystem. If we can integrate these collective efforts, we can make the project real,” she says, adding that, “access to international environmental funds is very crucial”.
For Ria Tobaccowala, an aspiring filmmaker, the experience in Hawassa was different from most MBA projects. “We weren’t just doing this for our careers or so that it could be on our résumés. We were doing the project because we wanted to do good,” she says.
“When you have that mindset it helps you stay dedicated.”
Business schools are increasing their emphasis on rigorous field experiences in response to what employers are looking for in job candidates, according to Martin Plumlee, an MBA recruiter who runs a boutique executive search company.
“Companies want critical thinkers and problem solvers — folks that know how to take a complex problem and come at it from a different perspective,” says Plumlee. Doing real-world projects in business school is an opportunity for students to practise those skills.”
Organisations are also seeking employees who are adept at navigating the public and private sectors. “Clients tell me that they want candidates who have that magic sauce of private sector experience and public sector knowledge,” the MBA recruiter says.
A demonstrated ability to work across business, government and non-profits provides an edge in today’s job market, he adds.
“They’re seen as the people who can drive sustainable change and be the best stewards of resources.”