RIGHT: Silvia Cruz, Daniel Greenberg and Shani Senbetta, MBA students at Harvard Business School, spent three weeks in Beirut working on a marketing strategy document for CHF's Iraq-based lending institution.
When MBA students from a top university team up with a large non-government organization (NGO) to tackle complex projects in a developing country, the result can be a win-win situation: the students gain valuable practical experience and the NGO gains access to the skills of talented young professionals and future business leaders. In essence, this is the nature of the Global Impact Experience (GIX) Program, which was founded in the fall of 2008 by and for Harvard Business School (HBS) students.
As part of their curriculum, student skills are matched with NGO needs and students undertake projects that include both remote and on-site work. Projects are chosen based on both the potential for HBS students to meaningfully contribute, and gain exposure in a unique business environment, which made CHF International’s Access to Credit Services Initiative (ACSI) an ideal match. ACSI was founded in 2003 and is the largest microfinance program in Iraq. It has disbursed more than half of all small loans in the country.
“The GIX program began with a relationship between HBS and USAID, with the goals to expose HBS students to opportunities in international development and to apply the skills of the MBA to issues often outside of the scope of traditional business school studies,” say recent HBS graduates Hafeez Giwa and Matthew Tolliver, who ran the GIX program in 2011.
That’s exactly what attracted Daniel Greenberg, 26, who now is on his second year at HBS, to the project. “It was a chance to work in international development, in a completely different country and get a good idea about what you can and cannot do with your MBA degree,” he explains. Daniel was part of a team of three HBS students who worked on a project with CHF and ACSI. Daniel, Silvia Cruz and Shani Senbetta spent three weeks in Beirut working on a marketing strategy document for the Iraq-based lending institution.
For Silvia, it was a chance to practice her Arabic, experience a different Middle Eastern country and learn more about microfinance. (As an undergraduate, Silvia took Arabic at Stanford University and attended the American University in Cairo.) “It was a very unique project and although we had done extensive research and prep work back in Cambridge, it was not until we got to Beirut that we really understood our constraints. Even in very poor countries, you can advertise, but in Iraq it becomes a security issue and you have to find ways around it,” she says.
Lack of human resources was another challenge the MBA students came across. “We were writing a job description for a marketing manager and we were told that there is no marketing degree offered in Iraqi universities,” Shani recalls, adding that meeting the Iraq-based ACSI team provided invaluable insight on the ground. “We had to test basic assumptions learned in a Western context in a Middle Eastern reality, as ACSI is making the transition to becoming a private company, which means being sustainable while doing good.”
Shani, who is originally from Ethiopia and has accepted a job offer in her home country, learned to admire the staff she worked with. “They are so creative and patient at the same time; I really admire that about them. When someone else might say ‘nothing can be done here’ and walk away, they will wait a little, think it through and then start to create a new solution.”
Their 42-page report provided a marketing strategy specifically designed to facilitate the success of ACSI’s future growth and expansion plans. “Thanks to the efforts and in depth analysis of the GIX team, the report outlines a comprehensive road map that we need to implement in Iraq. It is certainly valuable when crafting and finalizing our marketing strategies and tactics ensuring our leadership position, while at the same time helping us expand our market share, acquisition and retention rates,” explains Rola El Amine, ACSI’s newly hired marketing manager.
The experience was so positive that CHF and HBS are seriously thinking of teaming up again. “A part of our mission is to leave sustainable communities and projects where we work. We believe in partnerships and in being creative while developing sustainable solutions to the challenging environments we operate in. By bringing together some very bright young professionals and a seasoned team of committed development workers we can achieve more. The students had done some great research and had lots of ideas to share, while we provided them excellent testing ground and mentoring. We benefit from their expertise and outside perspective, they benefit from our local knowledge and on the ground experience,” explains Elissa McCarter, VP of Development Finance for CHF International.