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MBA Students Walk the Walk Worldwide

Practicums connect students with top companies like Facebook to develop business solutions to sustainability challenges

SEMBA students (L-R) Mariella Torres, Kyle Chu, Michael Carroll-Sherwin and Laury Saligman carried buckets of water while living with a family in Ghana to better understand the cultural aspects around water use for a practicum project they conducted with NativeEnergy.

The first nine months of UVM’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA) program teaches students how to address the world’s most serious sustainability challenges. The final three provides an opportunity to prove their skills in the field to leaders of some of America’s top companies.

The final SEMBA practicum, a full-time capstone experiential project, takes students around the world to address issues related to the environment, poverty, water access, ethics and inequality. This year’s cohort partnered with the likes of Facebook, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Lancer, Diva, Cemex, and Native Energy. 

Practicums focused on a wide range of issues including how to make the internet affordable to underserved areas of India; helping people living in poverty in Mexico create sustainable housing by equipping them with technical, educational and financial skills; addressing the household cleaning needs of low-income communities in an affordable and environmentally-safe way; and drafting a business plan for what a “farm of the future” would need to be sustainable.

Helping Facebook connect underserved parts of the world to the internet 

The practicum team of Jennifer Kalanges, Lydia Carroon and Jess Monago spent nearly three weeks in India conducting field research for Facebook in support of its Connectivity Lab initiative that seeks to connect the 4.2 billion people who are without access to the internet or have poor connectivity. Using new technologies developed by its Connectivity Lab, Facebook seeks to leapfrog existing methods and offer ultra high-speed and low-cost connectivity for the “last mile” in dense, urban slum environments and remote rural areas in the developing world.

Students focused on one of those projects known as Terragraph and explored the best means to bring connectivity to urban slums in India. This included conducting interviews, surveys, and homestays to identify and co-create the best business model to enable rapid adoption of the new technology by non-users and the underserved. Their insight is expected to help in the development of a viable business model for project Terragraph and a framework for the rest of the world to create mutually beneficial value for both businesses and the communities they operate in.

“This project puts SEMBA students at the forefront of one of the most important frontiers of both business and sustainable development: how to enable internet access for everyone,” says UVM professor and SEMBA co-director Stuart Hart, one of the world's top authorities on the implications of environment and poverty for business strategy. “The work they did will figure prominently in developing the strategy used by Facebook to make universal Internet access a reality.” 

Mariella Torres, Kyle Chu, Laury Saligman and Michael Carroll-Sherwin lived with a family in Ghana to better understand the financial and cultural aspects around water use. They immersed themselves in the community, which included carrying buckets of water on their heads with residents who routinely walk over a mile and-and-half for water. NativeEnergy, a Vermont-based company that funds clean water projects while cutting emissions through carbon offsets and renewable energy credits, asked them to create a business plan to support the implementation of clean water filters across Ghana in an affordable yet profitable way.

“We charged the SEMBA team to provide an African strategy for a clean water technology that we had just acquired,” says Native Energy president Jeff Bernicke. “The team was instrumental in providing both business-level strategic insights and on-the-ground market and operational direction for Ghana. Our team benefitted from the extra horsepower to push forward on a business decision and from the perspective that the SEMBA program brought into our discussions.”

Saligman said talking with businesspeople is helpful, but to really understand the cultural aspects around water use, living with a family was invaluable. “The family we stayed with explained that people don’t have bank accounts, so saving up is hard, plus they don’t incur debt,” says Saligman. “So as a business question it’s really challenging because you can’t address water without addressing the need for finance.”

Torres and Saligman tried to explain to residents that purchasing a Hydraid Biosand water technology system from NativeEnergy would significantly reduce the amount they spent on sashays (plastic bags filled with water) for drinking water. “Their mindset is that they have a paycheck each month and to take that much out at one time is just too much,” says Saligman. “It doesn’t make sense using Western logic, so we quickly learned about the pushback on trying to change mindsets and how long and hard that might be.”

Applying entrepreneurial principles to practicum projects

The practicum team of Kira Schmiedl and Vinca Krajewski partnered with Seventh Generation, a leading producer of environmentally safe, plant-based home products, to find ways of reaching low-income communities that are underserved by the green products market and experience higher rates of chronic diseases caused by toxic products.

“This project is really important to Seventh Generation because they are interested in social justice and equity and make a point to address the environmental injustices in the industry,” says Schmiedl, who traveled to North Carolina with Krajewski to some of the nation’s poorest counties. “We wanted to provide a roadmap for how Seventh Generation can meet the needs of underserved populations. The problem-solving approach we studied in class can be applied to whatever situation you are in, and that’s what we’ve been relying on for this practicum."

Krajewski said the entrepreneurial approach to solving problems and building a sustainable enterprise that defined the first nine months of the SEMBA program served her well during the practicum. “Most MBA programs would slot you into a more traditional role like a marketing intern with very specific deliverables, where ours is a lot broader and entrepreneurial, and that’s challenging in a good way,” she says. “Even though we might not know the specifics about market research in a company like Seventh Generation, we know the larger, more theoretical way of doing an entrepreneurial project.”

Practicums help students find opportunities

Practicum organizers wanted students to gain practical experience working on major sustainable business initiatives that would enable them to apply the full range of knowledge, skills, and capabilities gained during the program, and to pitch their proposals to a panel of executives, chief sustainability officers, entrepreneurs and financiers for potential adoption. Ideally, these practicum projects would be just the start of a long-term strategic initiative and would present the opportunity for students to continue in a paid capacity beyond graduation. 

“We believe the SEMBA practicums provide a unique experience for our students -- an experience that cannot be found in other MBA programs,” says Hart. “The practicum projects, as well as the extensive network provided by the SEMBA Board of Advisors are key to helping our graduates find opportunities as sustainable intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs, and change agents with a range of organizations, both in Vermont and beyond.”