Knowhow needed for real-world problems

Companies are increasingly demanding that business schools prepare MBA students to work in the developing world

MBA students have a reputation for being hard-nosed “A types”, focused only on the bottom line. Increasingly, the reality is very different. Many students at the world’s best business schools are drawn to the challenge of addressing the developing world’s most intractable issues. To borrow an apt cliché – they don’t just want to do well, they also want to do good.

Are these “doing good” programmes merely a feel-good exercise for business schools or is there shrewd rationale behind this apparent deviation from traditional business education?

There is a growing recognition in the business community that world markets are shifting from traditional industrial countries to the “emerging markets” of Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. While most of the world’s managerial talent pool resides in the US, Europe, Japan and Australasia, companies are investing massively in India, China, Brazil and many other non-traditional markets.

The population in the developing world is rising rapidly and middle classes, already sizeable, are growing fast – India’s alone will soon exceed the entire population of the US. Fine-grain knowledge of the developing world will be critical to business success in the future.

Increasingly, companies demand that business schools prepare MBA students to operate in these new markets. Schools that give students a chance to apply their knowledge and skills to make a difference in a developing country provide not only a life-changing experience but also crucial business skills. Student consultancy projects in the developing world can be an effective way to do this.

Many of the world’s best and brightest are making their way to top business schools. Who better to tap for solutions to the developing world’s problems? They are smart, they are driven and they are being trained by global experts to lead organisations to sustainability and success.

In Zambia, for example, poachers are killing protected wildlife in order to feed their families. So the NGO Comaco is giving them incentives to become farmers instead and further helping them by processing and selling their products locally. But resources are limited and to become sustainable they need to increase the scale.

After a month-long visit to Zambia, an MBA team from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business helped Comaco develop a business plan using skills learnt in the classroom, and put it on a healthy growth trajectory. The team won the Global Business School Network’s 2011 MBA Challenge Video Contest with a video showing how they had made an impact saving the lives of wildlife while improving food security and spurring economic growth.

These students applied their business knowledge to real-world problems. They learnt to work in a developing country where they faced different challenges. They now have a new perspective on opportunity, business and philanthropy that will remain with them after they graduate. That is something no case study class or Wall Street internship can ever provide.

As they become the next generation of global business leaders, they will have a personal connection to the issues facing the developing world. These are the students who will lead innovations in business that will further economic growth in emerging markets.

Sushma, a 12-year-old Indian schoolgirl, has severe low vision. Her glasses are supplied by Sightsavers, the NGO, but they are thick and she hates wearing them because other children tease her. As a result her eyesight is deteriorating. The Financial Times has invited MBA students worldwide to produce business plans for Sightsavers for its MBA Challenge. The challenge is to market glasses to young people in Asia and Africa.

As a contest judge I am excited to see what these students come up with. As a development economist I am equally excited about the impact they will make as professionals working in emerging markets once they graduate.

Guy Pfefferman is chief executive of the Global Business School Network and a judge in the FT Sightsavers MBA Challenge.

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