MBA Students Advise Organizations, Witness History Overseas

Elephant Pepper, a purveyor of hot chili sauces based in Livingstone, Zambia, has modest sales and almost no presence in the US. However, the company, which was born out of an effort by African farmers to grow chili-pepper fences around their crops to deter elephants, wants to change that.

Enter a team of Berkeley MBA students. The students, enrolled in Haas’ International Business Development (IBD) course, devised a viral advertising strategy, set up a company blog, and created a "trade not aid" marketing campaign to promote Elephant Pepper products in grocery stores all over the US this past spring. Then they traveled to Zambia in May to work directly with Elephant Pepper on-site.

"The students knew what we needed to get a national footprint in America," says Michael Gravina, the company’s founder. "To have access to the intellectual horsepower of some of the brightest MBA students in the US is making all the difference."

IBD is a management consulting program that connects MBA students with companies and nonprofits all over the world. This year IBD sent 20 teams to 15 countries, including Finland, Argentina, and for the first time Laos. Over the course of its 18-year history, teams have worked with multinational corporations, such as Nokia and Citibank, as well as local startups and nonprofits.

"Our goals are three-fold," says Elizabeth Kovats, IBD’s program manager. "We want to give students a solid consulting experience; we want to expose them to working in another culture; and we want them to learn how to collaborate and work effectively in teams."

Competition for IBD is stiff: This year, 135 students applied for 80 spots. During the spring semester of their first year, students work in teams around specific projects, which range from evaluating new ventures to feasibility studies to business planning and financial analyses. In May, teams travel to their host countries to work with their clients in person for three weeks.

Two other teams this year were working in Gabon, in West Africa, when President Omar Bongo, the longest-serving leader in Africa, unexpectedly died after more than 40 years in power.

"In Gabon, which is arguably one of the most stable countries in Africa, there were actions taken by the government that were alarming," says Dave Bend, MBA 10. After the president's death, "the Internet and TV were cut off for days throughout the entire country. The government also shut down the airport. I hadn't expected that."

Overall, Bend says, the experience opened his eyes to the challenges of working abroad. His team helped the Wildlife Conservation Society create a hydrocarbon consortium to advance preservation efforts along the Congo basin coast.

"There’s so much we take for granted in the US professional setting — even simple things like getting to and from the office, or having a functioning Internet and telephone," Bend says. "Working overseas — particularly in a developing country — there’s always something new and different."