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Student Ingenuity Fuels South Africa Trek

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 To arrange a 10-day trip to South Africa for 27 people, complete with safari, company tours, and networking events with alumni, all it takes is a little ingenuity — and the mind of a Tepper MBA.

The plans for a first-ever South Africa trek began back in spring 2007, when Erren Lester and Joseph Akpan, both MBA 2008, were brainstorming study abroad opportunities while they stood in front of the wall-sized world map featured in Posner Hall.

“We were looking at that map and thought, ‘We could go to Africa!’” recalls Lester, a member of the Black Business Association, of which Akpan is president.

And so a plan was born.

Little did they know of the due diligence that would be involved. Because they wanted students to earn course credit for the trip, Lester and Akpan organized a committee to discuss requirements with the school administration and connect with alumni in South Africa who could advise them about companies and non-governmental organizations to visit. The students also arranged corporate sponsorship from Stone Three, a venture technology company in Cape Town that is headed by Carnegie Mellon alumnus David Weber.

Earlier this month, more than a year after they first stood in Posner Hall, the combined group of 16 students from the Tepper School of Business, and 10 students from the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, departed the United States to spend their spring break learning about the post-apartheid economy in a collaborative experience fueled by their own ingenuity.

With alumni contacts in each location, the group visited Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Pilanesberg National Park and visited Standard Bank, Bosch Automotive, Wits Business School, AngloGold Ashanti, Mobile Telephone Networks, and HBD Venture Capital, as well as several NGOs. In the national park, they stayed at the Kwa Maritane Bush Lodge, where they met up with another group of American MBA students.

Akpan laughs as he recalls how the other students related how they had simply been handed an itinerary, instead of setting up the trip themselves. In fact, working through the process end-to-end made the experience much more valuable, he notes, because it taught students how to take a leadership role.

“It was challenging, but in the end it was more rewarding,” says Akpan. “We preach collaboration, but we were getting down and dirty. There were a lot of lessons learned.”

The fact that the students were able to create such a meaningful experience from scratch “attests to the skill sets of the people who come to Tepper,” he notes.

Traveling to South Africa was valuable because of its status as an emerging market, Akpan explains.

“We started a process to make sure Tepper is part of the conversation,” he says. “We’re going to build a brand in South Africa.”

During company visits, the nation’s labor dynamics became apparent, says Lester.

“They’ve got a shortage of skilled labor, which is slowing down innovation in the country,” he notes.

With such a disproportionately large pool of unskilled workers, South Africa has pockets where unemployment reaches as high as 50 percent. And with an infrastructure that was built around the ruling economy of apartheid, the effects of the growing middle class are apparent in worsening traffic problems and an electricity crisis that has periodically shut down parts of the lucrative mining industry, souring investor confidence. Under apartheid, there was simply no need to build roads to accommodate people who could not own cars or erect power plants for a population that did not have access to electricity.

Lester was impressed with the companies the group met that invested heavily in NGOs and are now working to improve quality of life post-apartheid. The students got a close-up look at the work of one activist, Pastor Henry Wood, who drove them in the back of his pick-up truck to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Cape Town, where his City of Refuge Community Church is located on a thoroughfare nicknamed “the street of death.”

Now that he has nearly completed business school and has accepted a position as director of product management at a Washington-area startup called Synteractive, Lester says the work of Wood and the NGOs will remain with him. Eventually, he hopes to contribute financially to those causes — particularly the African Leadership Academy, a school in Johannesburg that hopes to draw the continent’s best and brightest high school-age students.

“I think there’s a lot of potential in Africa, but they need strong leadership,” Lester notes.

As for the future of the South Africa trek, Lester and Akpan recruited first-year MBA students as part of their succession plan to ensure that the trip continues.

“For students ready for the next trip, we’ve set up a process to make it happen,” says Akpan.

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
Carnegie Mellon University
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Fax: 412-268-7824

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