Interview with MBA Alumna Samantha Barlow

We interviewed Samantha Barlow, MBA alumna 2018, on her experience of the ESMT MBA program.

What motivated you to do an MBA?

I sought an MBA to acquire the hard skills that would allow me to grow as an effective entrepreneur. Specifically, my aim was to increase my literacy in financial accounting and be able to transmit this knowledge into operational strategy in order to effectively launch my own company. My traditional employment prior to the MBA was as a program manager in the nonprofit sector, but I had also been on the founding team of two international social enterprises and wanted to pivot my career trajectory in that direction. The gaps in my knowledge and skills were immediately apparent to me, and I knew I needed to learn the language of business and increase my financial literacy to be successful.

I also wanted to engage with a global community, exchanging diverse ideas and experiences. I often think about how my movement through the world as a white, American woman affects my leadership practices. I am especially cognizant of these practices in the context of my business ventures in Ghana, West Africa, where my fiancée and I currently reside. I was motivated to do not just an MBA, but an international MBA so I could be even more thoughtful about working in different cultural contexts.

One year later, what would you say surprised you most about the program?

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the power of the ESMT network. When you read the brochure and the statistics about how many different countries are represented, they cannot do justice to the real thing. The distinct life experiences of my classmates and idea-sharing that took place during group work throughout the year challenged me. Months after graduation, people still post helpful job links and funny photos in the class WhatsApp group every day. The way alumni would respond to networking emails, the way professors would take time outside class to answer my questions, the way the administrators went out of their way to invite me to interesting events or connect me with relevant professionals – it all astounded me.

If you had to name one highlight of the year, what would it be?

The Munich company visits in May 2018 doubled as a thought-provoking glimpse at two companies and an enjoyable social experience with my classmates.

Thirty of us crowded onto the 7:00 a.m. Easyjet flight to Munich one Friday morning, changed into suits in the airport bathroom, and marched off to Holidu and Amazon. The companies – one a local startup and one a multinational tech giant – contrasted interestingly and we all discussed cultural fit and personal preferences on the bus ride to the hotel. We spent the rest of the weekend drinking beer with alumni, taking the free walking tour, and laughing together over meals of Schweinshaxe and Käsespätzle.

What motivated you to become a Responsible Leaders Fellow? What will you be doing?

The Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) is an amazing springboard to the next step in my professional career. I am seeking a career in social enterprise and have personal ties to West Africa, so the ability to pursue a six-month opportunity at Impact Hub Accra, the premier entrepreneurial empowerment agency in Ghana, is a dream come true.

RLF provides a great foot in the door, since it’s easier to join an organization as a pro bono consultant, thanks to ESMT’s generous Circle of Friends.  Now that I’m here, Impact Hub Accra is opening up doors for me and creating numerous networking opportunities.

I am able to flex my new MBA muscles as a financial and strategy consultant for the Hub’s health innovation program, taking on a variety of tasks I would otherwise be unable to as a traditional employee. My diverse fellowship consists of program and business development support, impact evaluation, and creating a separate budgeting system and long-term financial strategy for the health program.

What advice would you give to new students?

Take advantage of the opportunities! In the beginning you may feel overwhelmed adjusting to a new country and tackling the considerable amount of homework. Focus on learning, but do not worry too much about grades, and dive into the extracurriculars. Join clubs, attend events, stay out late, take up leadership roles, and be tired. You get as much as you put into the MBA.

Anything else you would like to share?

To new students – leave a legacy. You have one year, and whether you want to address sexism in the corporate world, make ESMT greener, strengthen the alumni network, increase diversity, or start a new club, think about how you want to be remembered and act on it.

The best 50 cents I spent in the MBA

I stood in the middle of a crowded street, people weaving past me, their bags occasionally bumping into me as they hurried past. Around me chatter in Swahili from families and couples doing their shopping. I can hear the occasional vendor singing his inventory to attract customers. To the left of me, a man selling knives breaks into a demonstration for a woman and tells her, “Nothing sharper than this madam.” I could spend all week watching the people on Tom Mboya Street. Describing how every person is the heart of a business transaction, how the smart talking salesman can sway a person going about their chores and magically turn them into a satisfied customer when they never even knew the product they bought existed this morning.

To make this story make sense, I need to tell you a little about me. I’m in love with entrepreneurship. I’ve loved every chance to study it during my MBA program. From the International Field Seminar trips to London and Tel Aviv, to networking with founders and advising participants in accelerators and incubators, to classes on how to be an entrepreneur, investment rounds and venture capitalists, I have loved EVERY WORD spoken about Entrepreneurship during my studies, which since we are based in one of the best tech start-up cities is A LOT!! Unfortunately, I’d begun to associate all start-ups with technology. And even worse, I was beginning to frame successful entrepreneurship with models based in developed countries, I was beginning to think that a business that doesn’t disrupt an industry, or one that isn’t supported by government and infrastructure had no hopes of being successful. Till I was standing in Mboya Street. Something that at first looked so foreign and chaotic, began to look passionate, organized when instead of dismissing it, I used my training to I look at it from the business perspective. I could spend all day talking about the beauty of doing business in the underground economy and how elegant, delicate and endearing entrepreneurship is in Africa but today I want to tell you about my journey to Kiambu.

I’m only on Tom Mboya Street to catch a matatu to Kiambu. In case you haven’t been to Nairobi, look at the picture, (taken from my very terrible phone and Google).

Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi

The roads are filed with matatus. These small minibuses are public transport. They are a private industry. While matatus get licenses from the government, the system of which matatu takes which route and when is largely regulated by the drivers and their conductors (conductors are the individuals who partner with drivers and are responsible for collecting money and getting customers)

This is my first time going and I have no idea how to get there besides vague instructions from a friend. I’m nervous to ask since my Swahili is all google translate based. But there is no need. The conductor approaches me. He asks me what I need. And here the businessman in him seizes the opportunity.Where are you going my sister?”He eases all the uncertainty I was feeling, and assures me, his bus is the right one. I enter his empty matatu. As I sit in the heavily decorated matatu, I realize the passion Matatu owners have. We often don’t see it as that in our daily lives, but take a look at the picture of the matatu: this man is clearly passionate about Kobe Bryant and his business. These matatus are often covered head to toe in pictures of an inspiring leader e.g. Bob Marley, Martin Luther King. Secretly, I dream of the day I see a matatu covered in pictures and quotes about me.

As I look around I realize there are other matatus filling up and leaving before ours. I stand up ready to search for another one, but the conductor catches me and convinces me to stay. He offers to show me where to stop and which road to take to reach my destination. He makes himself the best option and I sit down. Finally, the journey starts, I and 18 other passengers, fit in a 15-passenger bus. Somehow, he’s found a way to stretch his goals to increase utilization.

As I’m nervously checking the route, trying to find any of the landmarks my friend described I notice a police block. As the bus driver slows down to stop, the risk-taking conductor jumps out of the still moving matatu and goes over to negotiate the penalty. He’s back before I’ve even had time to count the number of police at the road block. (A story for another day is how I find in Zimbabwe police road blocks are where you find the highest density of government employees, but that’s for another day.) Before long we are now going up a hill, the car slows down and even with my basic understanding of car engines, I can sense something is wrong. I can feel panic begin to creep up, until I notice the driver is turning into a gas station. He eases in and the conductor jumps out and gets the matatu refuelled. I realize the two-man team knew exactly when they needed to refuel, they had planned this journey up to the number of kilometres to the gas station. At this point the conductor calls for my attention- he’s telling me it’s my stop. As I descend he’s holding a pregnant lady’s bag so she can enter the matatu with ease. I’m amazed at the level of care he takes with his customers- amazing people/customer relationship management. The best part of this journey is it’s only cost me the equivalent of USD 0.50, true value for money.

There are many models to use to study business, we learnt some key ones at ESMT, but the Responsible Leaders Fellowship gave me a chance to apply the models. I loved watching business in Nairobi and Harare, realizing the similarities between Amazon and a flea market, how street vendors are like pop up ads on a site, knowing when and how to enter your line of sight and get a sale; or how Uber gives you a map as rider so you can make sure you know where you’re going, similarly, in a matatu the driver assures me continuously I’m on the right route. But most importantly I loved working with Welthungerhilfe’s farmers on treating farming as a business. Doing trainings on analyzing output, increasing efficiencies and record keeping was such an amazing experience. Discussing and working on what elements of a digital platform would be valuable to farmers and working on a strategy for Kenya and Zimbabwe with the organization reminded me, business can change the world positively.

A Panda in Myanmar

One of the reasons that made me choose the full-time MBA at ESMT is the international exposure options that the program offers. As part of the curriculum, I had the chance to go to Seoul and Tokyo for the International Field Seminar and to IE Business School in Madrid for the one-week exchange within the Global Network for Advanced Management. And upon graduation, combining my passion for travelling with my desire of making a positive impact, I enrolled in the ESMT Responsible Leaders Fellowship and joined the panda family at WWF in Myanmar.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a country in South East Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. After its independence from the British empire in 1948, Myanmar was flourishing and one of the richest nations in South East Asia. However, five decades of military dictatorship following the coup d’état in 1962 isolated the country and left it in poor shape. Continue reading “A Panda in Myanmar”

Tida’s RLF in Nigeria: Immersing Myself in The Culture

In isiNdebele we say ukuhamba kuzala iNkosi which, loosely translated, means traveling bears a king. Metaphorically speaking, this means that traveling is an enriching experience. I’m going to share a bit of my experience in Nigeria with you all. Completing an RLF, for me, meant helping out at an organization in a developing country through the skills I’d gained at the ESMT, but also being molded personally by the experience. I immersed myself in a culture different to my own, and came out a better person on the other side. Continue reading “Tida’s RLF in Nigeria: Immersing Myself in The Culture”

Senegal: A cultural paradox

After staying in Senegal for four months I have grown accustomed to the question – What do you think of Senegal? I always ask the other person to be a little more specific because I have a mixed bag of YES and NO’s in my repository of experiences. If you ask me whether I like people, culture and life in general? Then, it’s a yes to all three questions. Do you think that the economy is in good shape and poised to grow? Then the answer is NO.

People in Senegal are extremely warm and welcoming. This is reflected in their day-to-day lives, community functions, work place and even clothes. Unlike India, which is also undergoing economic transformation, people in Senegal are patient, content and easy going. A dinner in a restaurant can easily extend beyond an hour because most people delve into conversations while the staff takes 20-minutes to bring the menu. It takes another 20-minutes to order and then another 30 minutes finishing the food. Sometimes my urgency in placing the order and eating food surprises the staff at the restaurants and cafés. Senegal is so easy-going and laid back that if you don’t ask for the check it never arrives. Similarly, confrontations in the society are resolved by arguing politely about the issues and sometime involves several volunteers that listen to the parties and help them reach a settlement. For e.g. if one cars slightly rubs off another car on the road then there is small exchange of words by pulling cars aside or some honking. If the damage is serious then settlement is immediately reached by involving the curios bystanders to assess the damage. That’s it! I have never seen people getting into heated arguments, heckling or brawls. I’m sure it happens but is not so visible in regular life.

This sense of calm and satisfaction is also observed at work. People show up early but morning discussions are important and small talk takes priority. If something goes wrong with the equipment at a convention or an event then you don’t see people running helter-skelter to fix it. Usually a person is sent out to find the person who can fix the problem. While the technician takes 5 minutes to arrive and fix the issue, the crowd breaks down in chatter as if it was expected. The speaker/ organizers stay calm as if this were a part of the show. This is how most things work here. In the beginning I had reached a pre-mature conclusion that people were lazy and productivity at work was extremely low. This is the point where I was completely wrong. For I had assumed that people didn’t do enough. In the process I missed the point the people don’t want to do more.

Understanding culture and people takes time, observation, and interaction. People in Senegal are deeply rooted in their culture. The culture of Senegal is defined by four words namely – Kersa (respect for others), Tegin (good manners), Terranga (hospitality) and Thiossane that stands for history, tradition and culture. These four tenets of Senegalese life pretty much define how they conduct and live their lives. It took me four months to understand this aspect of life and accept it. In the process I learned that people were more happy, content and in harmony with each other. This is contrary to the life of modern societies, in which materialistic wealth is seen as an important factor for achieving happiness but we are always short or looking for it. From the western perspective output at work may seem inadequate but from the Senegalese perspective it’s adequate as long as someone is working on it. Relationships and people are given priority over work and its often more important to preserve those rather than getting the work done. I have now come accept this way of life and it raises a profound question in my mind – We live to work or work to live? I’m glad that I experienced this and I hope that I would take these values back with me.

Although these ideals are a good way to lead a life, they cannot exist without a stable/economically developed society. Ignoring the fact that economic development and good quality life are not mutually exclusive is like ignoring the very peaceful existence Senegal has enjoyed till now and the factors responsible for it. Thus it becomes all the more important for Senegalese people to be economically stable, which will ensure survival of this culture and values. An economically unstable society cannot thrive on good conduct and culture. This is where most people in Senegal disagree with me and firmly believe that they are better off given the prevailing economic environment, simply blaming the government for all shortcomings. Most Senegalese are oblivious to the fact that the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and it is this constant influx of capital that it has managed to avoid wars, coups, and economic collapse that most of it neighbors have experienced in recent history.

Majority Senegalese believe that low agricultural productivity and underdeveloped infrastructure is an outcome of bad government policies. They also think that its entirely government’s responsibility to take care of agriculture and infrastructure industries. Although it is true to some extent, it would be wrong to just blame the government. Most millennial, start-up founders and businessmen have jumped onto the bandwagon of digitization/ ICT and ignored the opportunities in these foundational industries. They see digital businesses and service industry as the key to change the economic landscape. Universities, business schools and research centers also echo similar outlook with hardly any investment in R&D of agriculture, infrastructure and primary industries. It is only the foreign countries that see the opportunity and are thus investing heavily by leasing large swaths of land, building highways and investing in medical services amongst other industries. Senegalese people have nil or very little investment in these businesses. In my opinion agriculture forms the basis of a strong economy. All modern economies were built on agrarian societies, whose first goal was to become self sufficient in terms of food. Only when there is enough food for everyone, the governments and society can think of progressing into industrialized economy. It is very hard to find a country that was entirely able to skip this crucial step in transitioning from a developing country to a developed country. China and India are prime example of this transformation. Many young people are oblivious to this fact and strongly believe that recent growth in the ICT sector is the answer to end this dependency on foreign aids.

Even if we are to assume that ICT holds the key for economic transformation in Senegal there are other factors that pose as a major challenge. Some of these challenges are:

  1. Language – Today’s businesses are global and the primary medium of communication is English. People hardly speak English in this part of the world and this limits their reach and access to information.
  2. Limited natural resources –Senegal is not so rich in natural resources. For e.g. the entire energy requirement of Senegal is fulfilled by producing energy from imported oil. There is no hydro electricity or other forms of energy production. Surprisingly no one here in investing in renewable energy production given the high incidence of wind and sun all year long.
  3. Poor banking infrastructure and weak policies – BCEAO is the sole central bank for eight West African countries and the French treasury is the only guarantor. The French treasury sets the exchange rate between countries and the CFA is pegged to the Euro at a fixed rate. The French treasury also plays a big role in defining the policies that govern the BCEAO. Need I say more?
  4. Interference of international politics – Every government decision is heavily influenced by their French or American counterparts. I guess that’s the price you pay for This interference is noted not only in politics but also in the economic sphere. Most telecommunication companies, tourism businesses, and other important industries have international organizations holding majority stake.
  5. Dysfunctional relationship with neighbors – Senegal’s relationship with its immediate and extended neighbors is dysfunctional. One day they are friends and the next day you have a trade embargo that jeopardizes all the past efforts.
  6. Lack of R&D in agricultural, indigenous industries and life sciences – I met a lot of students, professionals and government officials but none seem to focus on mentioned areas. Other indigenous industries such as fishing, which is one of the biggest employers, are rapidly deteriorating and no investment is being done to improve its performance.

So going back to the original question – what do I think of Senegal – I have to say that I have mixed feelings. Most debates that start with that question somehow end with the preceding context. Although I am able to convince some people and my counter arguments raise a doubt in their minds it does not deter their belief in the Senegalese way of life. At one business event a similar conversation had captivated about 5 people and there seemed to be no end to it when one gentleman, who after patiently listening to all the arguments, turned to me and said – “You may be right but life goes on. The dinner is served and its time to eat. Everything else can wait but food should not!” For a moment I was stumped but I knew that he meant to say that with all the respect and warmth in his heart. Although the western values and way of life slowly creep into the Senegalese culture, I am hopeful that Senegal will continue to carry on the traditions and build upon that a progressive and sustainable country that will serve as an example for other West African nations.

Till then JerraJef !