Hard Corps

Roughing it with the MBA Enterprise Corps in Kenya

From the Spring 2009 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Robinson is expanding his horizons as a member of the MBA Enterprise Corps in Kenya.

Nat Robinson, MBA’07, is a world away from where he thought he’d be after graduating from Owen. While many of his former classmates are spending their days in the corporate jungle, Robinson is getting used to an entirely different way of life. While his classmates avoid traffic on their way to work, he may very well be avoiding a herd of elephants. Or while they’re climbing the StairMaster at the gym, he may be climbing the 16,355-foot peak of Mt. Kenya.

What truly sets him apart, though, is his job. Like many of his classmates, he is working in finance—only his responsibility is to help a Third World country succeed in the 21st century.

Robinson is a member of the MBA Enterprise Corps, an organization dedicated to helping Third World countries develop and grow their economies. The corps was founded in 1990 by a consortium of leading U.S. business schools. Today the corps sends recent business-school graduates on 13–15 month assignments to countries around the world, including Angola, Uzbekistan, Guyana and Azerbaijan. Their projects include microfinance (providing financial services to impoverished clients), small business and private sector development, and microenterprise (starting businesses with little or no capital).

Graduates accepted into the corps first spend a week in orientation and training in Washington, D.C. From there it is on to their assigned countries where they study the language and culture of their new homes for one to two months. After that they begin their actual jobs. In Robinson’s case, that means working for the K-Rep Group, a commercial bank focused on microfinance, in Nairobi, Kenya.

“They match you up with your interests,” Robinson says. “At first I was going to Peru, but that fell through. Then I was going to Nigeria, and then Angola and then finally Kenya. You have to be open and flexible.”

After graduating from Owen, Robinson was hired by Accenture. The company granted him a leave of absence to join the corps in fall 2008. On his blog, he describes some of his duties:

“My immediate role at K-Rep is to assist the organization in building up their financial reports to qualify for some major financing from the Grassroots Business Fund. I sit with a small army of young accountants and try to decipher as much of the relevant financial and accounting statements as possible.”

He’s also had a chance to see a bit of the country and has been warmly received everywhere.

“I was out at one of our village banking branches in western Kenya, where the Obama family is from,” he says. “I had to give a speech talking about our investments. At the end I said something in Swahili about Obama and I got a standing ovation.”

Karen Weist is the Associate Director of the Career Management Center at Owen and coordinates the school’s selection process for the corps.

“Each year we have a few students who apply,” Weist says. “They have to submit a resume and an essay, and they have to appear before an interview panel. We assess the individuals to make sure that they’re doing this for the right reasons.”

Because those who participate have, in effect, deferred their careers, Owen helps them get right back in the job market when they return.

“The commitment that we have to the students is that when they return, we give them access to our career services beyond what is normally available to alumni,” Weist says.

Weist points out that the program is not for everyone.

“We have lots of students who are interested in giving back,” Weist says. “But this program is for those who are interested in giving back on a global level. It’s for someone who is really, truly altruistic—that’s one of the fundamental elements. They also need humility and an understanding that they’re a guest in someone else’s country.”

Robinson’s involvement in Project Pyramid, the student-run organization dedicated to ending global poverty, played a big role in his decision to join the corps, as did his previous international work experience, which included an Owen internship in Shanghai.

“I have a background in nonprofit and government work and really loved the international business aspect. This is a neat combination of all that—corporate and social responsibility,” he says. “My summer in Shanghai prepared me for the shocks and little challenges involved with working in another culture and being far away from home.”

When he started business school, Robinson had no idea he would end up putting his degree toward something so rewarding.

“My thought of business school was that it was just going to be all business,” he says. “I didn’t think anyone would care very much about making a difference or working with nonprofits. I was really surprised that I was able find an organization in the business world that focuses on poverty alleviation. It’s a great way to use some of those finance classes I took at Owen.”

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