Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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U.Va. Darden School Students Support Social Innovation in Global Markets

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business has created a new category of electives for its full-time MBA curriculum. Called “Global Field Experiences” and born of the need for corporate social innovation, the electives will deploy the talents and passions of Darden students to locations across the world, starting in Africa.

In Zambia, the Darden students’ efforts will help provide bicycles to hundreds of thousands of people so they can more easily pedal their way to opportunity. Equipped with transportation, young people will be able to travel to school and health care workers will reach patients in remote villages. Workers will be able to transport important commodities.

The first global field experience, in Zambia, began last fall and culminated in a weeklong journey to the country in December.

Farther north, in Tunisia, a second course also took place this past fall, led by Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs Peter Rodriguez. There, Darden students teamed up with peers from the Mediterranean School of Business to develop business plans that will bring support to families facing Alzheimer’s disease and branchless banking to Tunisians for the first time.

The Zambia program resulted from a collaboration with World Bicycle Relief, a nonprofit organization that has distributed more than 100,000 bicycles and trained more than 750 bike mechanics in developing countries. The organization’s success demanded a model for financing in the rapid growth market of Zambia, and World Bicycle Relief recruited a team of Darden students to work on the issue. 

According to Marc Johnson, associate director of Darden’s Center for Global Initiatives, “GFEs expand Darden’s portfolio of international opportunities beyond our existing exchange, better meet students’ needs and provide another way to build global perspective.”

Students applied for the Zambia project last fall, and World Bicycle Relief selected six second-year MBA students to participate. Darden professor Mary Margaret Frank serves as the faculty leader, although she emphasizes that the project was student-driven. Their assignment was three-pronged: compile a complete review of, and offer recommendations for, the current World Bicycle Relief financial model; create a “pitchbook” that will aid in raising new capital; and develop a potential investor base for funding growth.

“We worked directly with the COO of Buffalo Bicycle – the for-profit arm of WBR that finances its nonprofit mission – to gather operating forecasts and build monthly financial statement models,” student Paul Manlapig said.

The Darden students’ analysis revealed a dire need for capital infusion to sustain growth and expand.

“We had to anticipate the questions an investor would have in evaluating WBR against competitors,” student Leidy Lebron said, adding that, although World Bicycle Relief has demonstrated significant impact on people’s lives across Africa, exacting metrics to quantify that impact – a key factor in investors’ decisions – was more difficult.

Having communicated entirely via conference call or e-mail prior to their trip, the team wrapped up its final proposal during the field visit in Zambia.

“The travel aspect has a twofold benefit,” Frank said. “First, it results in a better final product, since it’s difficult to truly understand a company until you actually see it in context along with its constraints. Second, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to gain in-depth experience abroad – a full week in one place with one company is remarkable.”

The students agreed that traveling was a highlight.

“After working so hard on the project, it was great to view both the nuts and bolts of the operation and the social impact it creates,” student Jay Beekman said.

In future years, the school plans to expand the number and type of global field experiences it offers – including social and commercial enterprises in different industries and regions.

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