By Ethan Rouen
February 6, 2012

When Sean Gardner faces his first management challenge at McKinsey this summer, he will be able to call on his experience studying in a country that has undergone one of the greatest organizational changes in history. Gardner, a second-year M.B.A. student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, spent part of his winter break in Rwanda.

Along with 26 other students, Gardner explored what is likely the most impressive turnaround story in a generation. Less than 20 years after hundreds of thousands of people were murdered by their countrymen and a decade since the first post-civil war presidential elections, Rwanda has become a thriving place for business and tourism, according to Katherine J. Klein, a management professor at Wharton, who led the class. In the World Bank’s 2011 Doing Business survey, Rwanda ranked 45, up from 158 six years ago.

“It ended up being a capstone project for me,” Gardner says. “I was able to directly apply the principals of the management courses I took to Rwanda’s story.”

Students and young workers frequently spend some time abroad to gain international work experience, try out living in a new place, and build their resumes. In recent years, though, universities, non-profits, and private employers have expanded their international programs to developing nations. These countries often offer students and workers a chance to see drastic change as it is happening and put the skills they are learning in class into practice.

Since 2011, Harvard Business School has required that all 900 of its incoming students do a field immersion class in one of 11 countries, ranging from Costa Rica to Vietnam. Wharton’s Global Modular Courses, also started last year, offer courses on healthcare in India and innovation in Israel.

Students at several other business schools, as well as employees at large organizations, are also looking to the developing world to hone their skills by looking at how lessons learned in the classroom or boardroom hold up in the extreme situations of civil war, poverty, and limited resources.

Although some argue that these trips are little more than academic tourism, a chance for students to vacation under the guise of learning, Gardner says that they did have fun, but even when visiting a gorilla refuge, “as business school students, we see how they are developing tourism as a vital part of their economy.”

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And for Klein, the short time frame and tempting tourist distractions are outweighed by the chance to show how classroom lectures apply in the real world.

“In my discipline, we do research on prejudice, discrimination, organizational change, vision. These are all there in Rwanda,” Klein says.

Besides the exposure to the raw and evolving lessons of emerging economies, countries like Rwanda offer access to executives and political leaders that would be impossible to find in London or Berlin. Wharton students in Rwanda met with the nation’s minister of defense, who spoke about the integration of Hutus and Tutsis, once bitter enemies, into the military. The minister of gender discussed the importance of equality in a country where many men were slaughtered or are in prison.

“In consulting, you are doing a lot of face time advising senior leaders,” Gardner says. “Here, we got to see directly how these people operate, what their communications skills are.”

While experiences in developing nations are ripe with management lessons that can be applied to situations in established economies, the people of these countries are often looking to hone the kind of skills that are taught at U.S. institutions.

After graduating from college, Neda Navab spent two years as a management consultant at McKinsey and Co. before taking six months off to work for a non-profit in Rwanda. There, she worked with entrepreneurs, helping them develop business plans and go-to-market strategies.

“It didn’t open my eyes to the world,” she says. “It expanded and redefined what I know about the world. I didn’t know how little I understood about the world until I went to Rwanda.”

Whereas investment banks and consulting firms tout their diversity, Navab found that she was working with people of different races and religions at McKinsey, but all of them had similarly privileged educational experiences.

In Rwanda, that was not the case.

Navab set out to create a business training program for women, but just advertising free classes was not nearly enough. She needed to identify the skills women would need in a country where 93% of the people lack access to electricity. Then she had to recruit students and convince them that basic business skills would help them improve how they run their businesses, which were mostly farming cooperatives.

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“We needed to explain to them why they should make these sacrifices,” she says. “They didn’t realize that what they learned can be used outside the classroom.”

Navab and her team were successful, helping more than 200 women develop their marketing, negotiation, and accounting skills.

“It amazed me how badly they wanted to learn, the sacrifices they were willing to make for their education,” she says.

And that is part of what is luring Navab and others of her generation to places like Rwanda, she says.

“We’re looking to do something more with the tools that we have been given,” she says. “These values are instilled in us at good schools, then we go to investment banks and consulting firms and find something missing.”

While they may be able to expand their network in London or pick up a new language in Paris, in third-world countries, they feel that they can put what they have learned to use and watch it grow.

“We have these really powerful toolkits that we can use for something impactful,” Navab says. “I can get so much more mileage out of my skills being in a developing country.”


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