University of Southern California

Building a Plan, Making a Difference
Africa Schools Project Teaching USC Marshall Students Too
December 30, 2008 • by News at Marshall

By David Bloom

Botswana is a 38-hour trip by plane from Los Angeles, tucked in southern Africa hard against the Kalahari Desert. The 1.7 million residents of the Texas-sized country face one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection, afflicting roughly 30 percent of the adult population.

And for all that, a student team from USC's Marshall School of Business visiting there this summer found many familiar challenges, including an immigration wave from a troubled neighbor, overwhelmed public schools and huge inequities in educational access for much of the population.

The team - five MBA students and one undergraduate, supported by Associate Professor of Clinical David Belasco and Full-Time MBA Program Director Lida Jennings - spent two weeks in Botswana in mid-June, part of a unique partnership with the country's Anglican diocese and the non-profit Think Tank Thuto.

During their whirlwind trip, the Marshall team met with a who's who of Botswana leadership and visited more than 20 public and private schools. The trip kicked off a summer-long project and coursework to create a sustainable business plan for two planned international schools there. During their visit, the students grappled with a schedule that continually changed and the vagaries of what they jokingly came to call "Botswana time."

"Things really change when your client is a non-profit organization," said Jennings. "It's a very different beast from what we encounter on PRIME," the class and overseas trip required of all Marshall full-time MBA students. As part of PRIME trips, MBA students work on problems facing a real-world company in the country they're visiting.

But the trip also was an intensely life-changing experience for the students, expanding their education and work experience while helping an entrepreneurially minded church leader, Anglican Bishop Trevor Mwamba, create a major investment in his country's future.

The Anglican diocese plans to build and run the schools, which Mwamba hopes will be regarded highly enough to draw boarders from other countries, while financially robust enough to provide scholarships to half the schools' students.

Since the visit, the students and two more MBAs have spent the summer preparing the business plan for presentation to Mwamba later this fall, when he visits Los Angeles on a fundraising trip for the project.

Belasco, a successful entrepreneur who recently sold his company, has been simultaneously teaching and advising the students on the plan. The students will receive credit for their work through USC Marshall's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

But the students, chosen from more than 40 applicants for the program, say they had far more compelling reasons to join the team than just picking up a few summertime class credits.

"It seemed like an opportunity to give back to the community," said team member Mark Roberts, a first-year MBA student. "Education is a key to development of any community."

Tyler Monroe, who is pursuing a joint MBA and Master's in Real Estate Development, said the project was a first step in his planned career in building affordable housing. While learning the complexities of creating a sustainable non-profit in a Third World country, the exuberant Monroe also typically was the first of the group to join the dancers, singers and others who greeted the team at nearly every stop.

The trip yielded some unexpected pleasures, such as a visit to an orphanage, where most of the children have lost at least one parent to AIDS and in most cases are infected with HIV themselves.

"To have the opportunity to affect these kids was - I just can't say anything more about that," said Deborah Kimball, who is pursing both an MBA and an M.D. at USC. She said she hopes to return to Botswana for another working visit during her fourth year of medical school.

The students brought three trunkloads of toys for the orphanage and such seemingly innocuous presents as sheets of stickers, which children promptly peeled and stuck on their faces. Elsewhere, the students distributed USC clothing donated by the Trojan Bookstore.

MBA students Amitesh Aggarwal and Geoffrey Phillippe and undergraduate Raphael Anderson joined Roberts, Kimball, and Monroe on the trip.

The group was warmly received throughout the country, with dancers, singers and others at seemingly every visit. During a meeting with Botswana President Fetus Mogae, he even put on a USC baseball cap for photos. And the strong community response even led the mayor of Francistown to offer land as site for the first school.

And though the students' duties end when the business plan is presented, Belasco said the group hopes to "enlarge our role in the project" to help make their plan a reality.

"There's no place like Africa," said Belasco. "There's something about the place. It changes you."

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.