MBA students present on sustainability, entrepreneurship at Cape Town summit

A hundred MBA students join forces in Cape Town.
A hundred MBA students join forces in Cape Town.

Growing up in a conflict zone in Turkey led Hejar Oncel to research the connection between water availability, wars, and sustainability.

“One of the reasons we have so many wars in the Middle East, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is, basically, water scarcity,” says Oncel, MBA 18, who was joined by Hien (Sunny) Nguyen, also MBA 18, to present March 14-17 at the MBA World Summit in Cape Town, South Africa.

This year, a total of 100 MBA students from top business schools worldwide were selected to attend the summit, chosen from more than 3,000 applicants. The summit, founded in 2014, aims to create a global MBA leadership community by encouraging the students to debate “the most pressing issues of our times.”

The Haas students competed in two qualifying rounds before they were invited to the final event in Cape Town.

The summit agenda, crafted with the input of the MBA students, focused on three topics: collaboration culture, high-impact exchange, and interdisciplinary approaches to global business and societal issues.


Nguyen in Philippi, a township that has transformed into an entrepreneurial hub.
Nguyen in Philippi, a township that has transformed into an entrepreneurial hub

Throughout the week, Nguyen and Oncel joined other students on a Social Impact Day, traveling with local residents, visiting villages in order to get a better understanding of the business problems they face. They paired with aspiring entrepreneurs in the Khayelitsha community, one of the biggest entrepreneurial hubs in South Africa, to share ideas.

Nguyen’s summit topic is close to home. She is researching how to build a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem in her native Vietnam. She said she grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs in a country where the GDP per capita was about $2,000 in 2016.

“Vietnamese people are very entrepreneurial. You can find a small business owner on every street corner,” she said. “What struck me the most is the missed opportunities due to a lack of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Vietnam, as well as many other developing countries. That is why I came to Haas—to find ways to tackle this problem.”

Oncel studied the link between water scarcity and conflict.
Oncel studied the link between water scarcity and conflict.

At Haas, Nguyen is president of the Southeast Asia MBA Association, which includes top MBA programs from across the U.S.

She co-chairs a business conference about startups in Southeast Asia and took part in the Global Network of Advanced Management (GNAM) to learn about entrepreneurship in Mexico and Latin America. She also represented Haas in the MISK Global Forum on innovation and entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia.

Before coming to Haas, Oncel earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston and held several engineering and technology management roles at National Oilwell Varco in Texas and Norway. He recently worked as a senior management associate intern at Bridgewater Associates. He says he’s interested in exploring how businesses can achieve profitability while focusing on water sustainability and optimization.

Oncel said Adj. Prof. Nora Silver’s class, “Large Scale Social Change: Social Movements,” was a starting point and an inspiration for his World Summit project. Silver is the founder and faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership.

“She definitely reframed my way of perceiving business, management, and social change,” he said.

Organization leaders have a seat at the table and can influence policy, he said, and they should understand the impact that their businesses have on water and energy usage.

“I’m just trying to bring a Haas approach to a responsible business. I want to bring that perspective and explain why we can care so much about sustainability, environment, and human rights at Haas—and still create big companies that are creating value for shareholders,” he said.