2016 Best MBAs: Tom Vanneste, London Business School

Tom Vanneste London Business School

Tom Vanneste


London Business School

“The biggest lesson I gained from business school is to take initiative, to take risks, and to remember that failing only becomes a failure if you don’t learn from it. I’ve learned this from the many case studies we have taken in class, as well as the incredible journeys of my peers.”

Age: 28

Hometown: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Previous Schools:

2008-2009 Master of Economics, magna cum laude, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

2005 – 2008 Bachelor of Economics, cum laude, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

Where did you work before enrolling in business school?

Deputy Director, CCBRT Disability Hospital, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Internal Consultant, Vodafone Group Foundation, London, UK.

Internal Consultant M-Commerce & Foundation, Vodacom Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Where did you intern during the summer of 2015? The Boston Consulting Group, Johannesburg (South Africa) & Lagos (Nigeria)

Where will you be working after graduation? Consultant, The Boston Consulting Group, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School

Social Rep of Stream A, MBA2016 Class

Founding member of the Belgian Society at LBS

Active member of the Health Care and Africa Clubs

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Climate change is threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa. LBS has given me the opportunity, network and resources to found an IoT start-up, called Kukua (“to grow” in Swahili) to tackle this head-on.

For centuries, most smallholder farmers in Africa have relied on traditional weather knowledge, passed from generation to generation, to know when, where, and how to plant crops. Unfortunately, climate change is rendering this knowledge obsolete by affecting precipitation patterns, length of growing periods, and temperatures.

Technology must fill the gap. Farmers need access to accurate weather data to make informed decisions in order to avoid crop losses and boost yields.

However, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has a massive lack of weather tracking infrastructure. Together with classmates from LBS and with engineers from Rotterdam Erasmus University, we have invented a low-cost, internet-connected and solar-powered weather station. We won grants from the European Union and together with LBS as a partner, we are currently installing 70 weather stations in Nigeria. Using a user-centered design approach, we are now developing weather based products, such as forecasts and crop-insurance, to make smallholder farmers more resilient against climate change.

We have a long way to go. Nonetheless, we have sowed the seeds for a data-driven approach to tackle climate change and long-term we are very hopeful that we will change many lives and communities.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Three thousand young women every year in Tanzania develop obstetric fistula as a result of prolonged obstructed labour. Obstetric fistula is a condition that leaves women incontinent, continuously leaking urine and/or feces. They are some of the most marginalized people of society, ashamed to attend church or market, and spitted-out by most in their community.

Only a fraction of these women receive a life-changing surgery. At our hospital, we had the capacity to treat 500 women every year, but due to numerous barriers in the way of patients, our wards were only half-full most of the time. One of the biggest problems for patients was their inability to fundraise the $15-30 to pay for the transport costs of coming from their village to our hospital.

Through the support of colleagues and donors, I launched a mobile money scheme through which the funds for transport were sent to the women, who were diagnosed by a network of “Ambassadors” I founded. In less than 3 years, the number of surgeries we performed yearly tripled to close to 700 and I managed to fundraise $12 million from Vodafone to support the program and finance the construction of a new maternity hospital to prevent fistula.

Having a baby should be an incredibly joyful moment. Too often in Africa it is a life-threatening event for both mother and child. We need to change this.

Who is your favorite professor? Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, London Business School. Although Mr Skinner is not a faculty member, I wanted to recognize him here as he has been instrumental in giving our weather station start-up incredible support. He is always ready to help, provide advice and connect us. Mr Skinner approached the Dean of our school to make a case for having Kukua install a weather station at our school and run a campaign around it for Earth Day. He also provided moral support when our start-up went through some very difficult times, such as founder’s equity and roles.

Favorite MBA Courses? Planning our roll-out of weather stations in Nigeria, we made a nice gantt-chart and were happy and convinced that we would be all done by end of March. I then took (actually audited ) the Project Management course taught by Professor Bert de Reyck and realized our existing plans could be trashed. I feel the course has had the most practical application and has fundamentally helped Kukua ensure our roll-out will be a success by adding such things as “risk” to project plans and always starting to with work-breakdown-structures to ensure no actions are forgotten.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose London Business School for three reasons. First, I wanted a top-business school that is consistently ranked highly. Secondly, having always been to international schools and planning an international career, I wanted a school that breathed “internationalism” and had a student-body from across the world. Finally, I wanted to be in global city where I could easily access great leaders and great institutions. London Business School was, I felt, the only option that fitted all three criteria. I therefore only applied to LBS.

What did you enjoy most about business school? The camaraderie with friends in the class has been amazing. Over the past two years, I have developed some of strongest friendships I have. Not only have I often required a shoulder to lean on, but I have needed help with the start-up and advice on many topics. I am convinced our journey together in the last two years will ensure these friendships last a very long time.

What is the biggest lesson you gained from business school? The biggest lesson I gained from business school is to take initiative, to take risks, and to remember that failing only becomes a failure if you don’t learn from it. I’ve learned this from the many case studies we have taken in class, as well as the incredible journeys of my peers. The decision to launch Kukua is the result of this philosophy and the countless nudges by classmates and faculty.

What was the most surprising thing about business school? I was surprised by the incredible talents and experiences of people in my class. As social rep, I organized weekly mini-Ted Talks during the break of one of our classes. Over the course of the first year, over 15 people spoke about their passion, interest, or an event that shaped their life. I recall a classmate who fought in Afghanistan for the US Army and spoke about the charity he set up in Afghanistan that donated shoes to children. These stories were inspiring, and made me very privileged to be part of the MBA class.

What was the hardest part of business school? The hardest part of business school was choosing and prioritizing between the dozens of opportunities to be involved in school activities, panels, start-ups, clubs, etc. and the accompanying fear of missing out. Business school teaches you the art of prioritizing – the hardest part were the many times I had to choose between the many great chances that passed by.

What’s your best advice to an applicant to your school? Three pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t overcommit to clubs and other initiatives – think quality, not quantity
  2. Invest in getting to know people and developing great friendships
  3. Use these two MBA years to go beyond your comfort zone and to try things you wouldn’t otherwise do.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realized how much I did not know and had to learn whilst managing the hospital.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…managing a hospital in Tanzania, but probably less effectively than now after my MBA.”

What are your long-term professional goals? Every day in Tanzania, 36 women die and a further 700 suffer disabling conditions as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. These are just two examples of the preventable tragedies that I want to tackle after graduating from London Business School. My long-term professional goals lie in playing a leading role in improving the healthcare providers and systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? I would most like to thank my parents and family for giving me this opportunity to do an MBA and supporting me in this incredible journey. I could not have done it without their continuous encouragements, support, and care. Moreover, my parents serve as inspiration to me, having dedicated their lives to improving the health of the poorest people in Tanzania. It is in their footsteps that I want to walk.

Fun fact about yourself: Nutella and Ketchup are my two vital survival foods.

Favorite book: Facing the Congo by Jeffrey Tayler

Favorite movie: Top Gun

Favorite musical performer: Dire Straits

Favorite television show: Friends

Favorite vacation spot: Zanzibar

Hobbies? I grew up sailing on the Indian Ocean, and I’ve taken my passion to the river Thames in London. I also love playing football.

What made Tom such an invaluable addition to the class of 2016?

“London Business School’s aim is to have a profound impact on the way the world does business, and Tom is an exemplar for this goal. From his previous work in Tanzania through to his start-up in Nigeria and his goals for the future or women’s healthcare in Africa, Tom personifies the impact that the combination of talent, humility and education can have. Tom has fully engaged with the MBA programme from day one, bringing ideas to the School for development and supporting us to continue to be a fantastic community and programme. He has successfully transformed his summer internship into a full time role and his natural ability to network and create connections, as demonstrated in the development of the weather stations for Kukua and the mobile money scheme in Tanzania, puts him in the perfect position to take his passion for improving the world to the next stage.” — Erica Hensens, Programme Director, MBA programme, London Business School


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