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Changing the World, One MBA at a Time

Changing the World, One MBA at a Time

During the peak of the financial meltdown in November 2008, Tim Elliott did what many MBA graduates would have deemed unthinkable at the time, quitting his job as vice-president of finance and technology for Calidora Skin Clinic, a skin-care company headquartered in Seattle. Elliott, a 2004 graduate of the UCLA Anderson School of Management (Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile), had spent nearly 15 years working with startups and private equity firms and was itching for "a sabbatical from the corporate ladder," he says. He found just that when he stumbled on the Web page for MBAs Without Borders, a nonprofit that sends MBA graduates on assignments to developing nations for anywhere from two to six months. He soon found himself on a plane heading to Cambodia's Phnom Penh, where he would work for six months as a volunteer on a project to help deliver safe water to poor people in villages across Vietnam and Cambodia.

"At this point in my career, I started wondering if making rich people richer was really my mission in life," says Elliott, 36, who was sent to work as a consultant for the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, or PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to battle health challenges in poor nations. "Making them a bit more money at my old job wasn't going to change the world."

Elliott is part of a growing number of MBA graduates turning to organizations like MBAs Without Borders as a way to use their business skills to help nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and explore whether they want to pursue careers in the developing world. In many ways, it's the MBA version of the Peace Corps, offering graduates a chance to flex their business skills in supply-chain management, marketing, and financial analysis in far-flung regions that are as remote as business school students can get from Wall Street. Many business school graduates are finding these opportunities through CDC Development Solutions, a Washington (D.C.)-based nonprofit that operates both MBAs Without Borders, which was founded by Canadian MBA students in 2005 and acquired by CDC last year, and the MBA Enterprise Corps, which it has been running since 1990.

Emerging-Market Consultants

For both programs, CDC matches an MBA graduate—dubbed a "business advisor"—with a client in an emerging market, sending the person to consult with NGOs, microfinance institutions, government agencies, or small businesses. The program is not for everyone; to qualify, candidates must hold an MBA degree, have at least three years of work experience, have lived or worked overseas, and be proficient in a foreign language. Those who choose to do the Enterprise Corps are given longer-term assignments, ranging from a year to 15 months. The assignments are unpaid, but the organizations that sponsor the volunteers—typically groups like the Grassroots Business Fund, the World Bank, or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—help cover airfare and housing and give participants a living stipend.

The prospect of no salary for up to a year or more does not seem to be discouraging people from applying, even in today's tough economy. Interest in these programs is on the upswing, with applications doubling for both programs in the last year, CDC says. In 2008, there were 45 applicants for the MBA Enterprise Corps, a number that jumped to 89 in 2009. There is also "extremely high interest" in the MBAs Without Borders program, with an average of 100 applicants applying for each short-term assignment, says Kareem Mansour, MBA programs coordinator for CDC.

The escalating numbers come as more business schools than ever before are offering classes that expose students to topics like microfinance and sustainability. The percentage of business schools that require students to take an elective course focused on "business and society" issues continued to increase, rising from 63% in 2007 to 69% in 2009, according to the Aspen Institute's Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey, an alternative "green" MBA ranking. And of the schools surveyed, more are offering electives that contain social, environmental, and ethical content.

"In the last five years, B-school curriculums have changed and there is such a focus now on social issues and corporate responsibility that there is a lot more interest from people who would not have previously been interested in these programs," says Kate Ahern, CDC's director of business development. "Plus, a lot of people are realizing that international experience is really critical to getting a job now."

Experience Abroad

That is the case for Tiffany Urrechaga, 37, a current Enterprise Corps member and 2009 graduate of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile). She's currently working as a market researcher in Abuja, Nigeria, as part of a USAID project designed to increase farm productivity. Faced with the difficult MBA job market last spring, Urrechaga decided to apply to the Corps in the hopes of gaining experience abroad that would help her differentiate herself in the job market. She was also able to take advantage of a program at Kellogg that allows her to receive partial student-loan forgiveness for the year she's serving abroad, a perk that helped convince her to sign on.

"I feel like the experience I'm getting here is extraordinarily valuable and way beyond what you could hope to get in some more posh American job, so I have the full confidence that it will pay off in the long run," she says.

Urrechaga's mindset is becoming increasingly common at many business schools, as more students turn their sights to careers in emerging markets and corporate social responsibility, career services officers say. The Enterprise Corps is especially popular at schools like the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business, where a tough job market and a focus on sustainability have many students exploring careers outside of banking and consulting.At Moore, applications to the MBA Enterprise Corps have increased about 30% this year, says Jane Willis, managing director of the office of career management.Meanwhile, at the Thunderbird School of Global Management (Thunderbird Full-Time MBA Profile), about 15 students a year apply to the Corps, and interest continues to grow in both the Corps and MBAs Without Borders, says Mike Low, Thunderbird's director of employer relations.

"A lot of MBAs who are interested in being engaged in global developing economies find that it is very competitive and not easy to gain the experience and credentials you need in order to move easily in that space," says Low. "The Enterprise Corps is an experience that allows people to accelerate their development and trajectory in this field."

Career Opportunities

Indeed, many of the participants in the CDC programs end up finding jobs in the developing world after their stints abroad end, or return to the U.S. to work for nonprofits that focus on emerging markets, CDC says.

Chris Zintel, a 2007 Thunderbird graduate who worked for the U.S. African Development Foundation in Conakry, Guinea, for a year on a supply-chain project, says he is convinced his experience in the Enterprise Corps helped him land his current job. He is the technical program manager of the nonprofit Grameen Foundation's Technology Center in Seattle, a role he's held now for about two years, and will be working in Kenya for the next year or so helping develop a program that will let people use cell phones as mobile payment devices.

"I'd absolutely say I got this job because I was on the ground in Africa doing business development," Zintel says.

Meanwhile, Tim Elliott, the MBAs Without Borders volunteer in Cambodia, managed to turn his stint with the nonprofit PATH into a full-time gig, crafting a job proposal and convincing PATH to hire him. He's now helping the organization find investors for businesses in Vietnam, Cambodia, Kenya, and India. He'll also be giving back to the program that helped him launch a career in this new field, hiring what he calls a "tiger team" of MBAs Without Borders volunteers to help him on these projects and new initiatives in the coming year, he says.

"It was a bit of a risky career change, but it's worked out quite well," he says.