The do-gooder's MBA

Special programs that let B-school grads start out in developing nations offer a lifetime's worth of management experience.

By Peter Viles, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Omar Yaqub didn't want a conventional 9-to-5 job after business school. He wanted to help save the world. So the 28-year-old MBA went to Nigeria to tackle an impossible task: creating demand for a product no one wanted.

The product, an antimalaria sleeping net, was literally a lifesaver. Mosquito-borne malaria kills more than a million people a year, most of them African children. But Nigerians considered the nets primitive, rural, and ugly. Typically, a government health-care worker would have been sent to spread the word about the importance of mosquito nets.

But Yaqub, fresh out of the University of Alberta, was sent to Nigeria by MBAs Without Borders (MWB), an organization founded in Canada on the premise that First World marketing skills can help solve the Third World's problems. The three-year-old nonprofit has sent graduates to enroll HIV-positive women and children in Rwanda's national health insurance plan, write a business plan for a dried-fruit wholesaler in rural Ecuador, and bring professional accounting standards to a remote hospital in Haiti.

MWB is one of several organizations, including for-profits, that give B-school graduates real-world experience in the trendy and growing field of social entrepreneurship. The pay is lousy, but the benefits to the host countries and the graduates are worth a fortune.

Yaqub, for his part, did some creative thinking about bed nets that was worthy of a high-priced marketing consultant. Since the customers didn't like the look of the product, he changed it. After conducting focus groups across Nigeria, he persuaded the manufacturer to reintroduce the nets in vibrant, locally popular colors -- pinks in the northern city of Kano, blues in Enugu in the southeast, greens in the L.A.-size city of Lagos.

To change the nets' backward image, he schmoozed producers in Nigeria's booming film industry (known as, yes, Nollywood) and got Hollywood-style product placement in 20 movies and two popular Nigerian soap operas.

It worked. In nine months Yaqub's team negotiated deals to distribute nearly 4 million nets; he returned to Canada in December, hooked on the rush of social entrepreneurship. "You feel good," he says of the experience. "You can sell as much Coke or Pepsi as you want. But if you do this, you've helped alleviate some suffering."

Posts like Yaqub's are not for the faint of heart. Consider this job listing from the website of the MBA Enterprise Corps, a unit of the nonprofit Citizens Development Corps that finds business school grads for management positions in the developing world: "The ideal MBA candidate for this position will be comfortable living in an extremely rural setting, working alongside (very) micro entrepreneurs who, for the most part, have no formal education and are only functionally literate."

The ad was placed for mining giant Goldcorp (Charts), which wanted an MBA to promote the development of small agribusinesses in Guatemala. The pay: about $30 a day.

No wonder most B-school grads won't bother. "The investment banks throw $180,000 at a 29-year-old, plus bonus," says Tonio Palmer, who oversees marketing and recruiting at the University of Pennsylvania's Lauder Institute, where graduates leave with a Wharton MBA, a master's degree in international relations, and solid knowledge of a foreign language. "What are you going to do?"

Indeed, MWB has placed just 21 graduates in its three years of existence. The MBA Enterprise Corps places 30 to 35 graduates each year.

Private-sector companies offer a bit more money for similar work, although nothing like an American salary. The U.S. Agency for International Development hires for-profit contractors that in turn hire MBAs for public-and private-sector economic development projects overseas.

Virginia-based Carana (500 employees globally), for example, is now recruiting for West Africa, the West Bank, and the Balkans. Maryland-based DAI, with more than 1,000 employees worldwide, is hiring in Liberia and Latin America. Entry-level pay can be in the mid-$50,000s.

But for MBAs with global ambitions and a willingness to get their hands dirty, working in a developing country does more than feed the spirit. Graduates aren't just examining case studies; they're creating new ones, jump-starting real businesses, and bringing the gospel of entrepreneurship to places where it's never been preached. It could take years for a young person to get that kind of power in the developed world.

Take 24-year-old Nicolas Boillereau, who, through an MWB program in Ghana, managed nine people and implemented a 10-nation study of cashew sales in Africa with the goal of boosting exports. (One of his conclusions: Prices set by the government of Guinea-Bissau, a tiny African country, were too high.) "This kind of responsibility is very rare for people my age," he says.

Nicole Barnao, who worked with a dried-fruit startup in Ecuador called Terrafertil, concurs. "I'm not sure this makes me a better person," she says. "But it definitely makes me a better manager."

After they complete their projects in these far-flung countries, the new MBAs scatter again. Some use their experience to move up to higher-paying positions at management consulting firms. Others stay on as full-time employees of the companies they launch.

Yaqub is expanding MWB's reach through technology, redesigning its website and looking to build online communities with like-minded MBAs. He's also hunting for his next adventure in social entrepreneurship. Why not, like his classmates, use his MBA to make some real money?

"I'd turn the question around," he says. "If your work can have meaning and you have the opportunity to do something like this, why not take it?"

Peter Viles is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Top of page

To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.