My Story: From Tanzania To The Olympics & Stanford GSB

Benjamin Fernandes, Stanford MBA ’17, is a television personality in his home country of Tanzania, where he has sports and youth talk shows. Courtesy photo

Benjamin Fernandes was at a fork in the road. The native of Tanzania was weeks away from getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, and he had three good job offers on the table. One involved a lot of money — the most, he says, that anyone in his graduating class had been offered — and a green card. Not only that, but despite applying in round 3, having no post-graduate work experience, and having scored abysmally low on the General Management Admission Test, Fernandes managed to get on the waitlist at both Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

So what did he decide to do? Turn down the job offers and go home.

It was the beginning of a long detour. By the end of it, Fernandes would not only be a Stanford Class of 2017 MBA, he’d be a celebrity in Tanzania, preparing for graduate studies at an globally respected public policy school, and planning a complete modernization of his country’s financial services — and, he hopes, a future in that country’s government.

GOOD FORTUNE AND TOUGH ACADEMIC LUCK

Fernandes’ declined to start his career in the United States for one simple reason: He “felt indebted.” And he has a point. Tanzania is a poor country; by some estimates, more than a third of its 53 million citizens live below the poverty line. Fernandes, raised in the coastal metropolis of Dar es Salaam, was no stranger to financially challenging conditions. But from an early age, he was fortunate. He and his sister Bernice, one year his senior, were sponsored by a British family to attend K-12 school at a time when public school was not universal or free. Later, he was supported by teachers, co-workers, family, and community in his desire to attend college in the U.S.

Benjamin Fernandes

In fact, as a soccer-obsessed kid who was a poor test-taker — “When I was a senior in high school,” he says, “I wasn’t a smart kid” — he was fortunate to have the chance to go to college at all. There was just one problem: His grades were so bad, his academic ambitions seemed likely to come to an early end.

“When I was playing sports, it was my outlet, but my grades were sacrificed, so when I was a senior I didn’t do well academically,” Fernandes, 24, tells Poets&Quants. “We were graded on the British system — A-B-C-D-E-F-U. Our teacher told us that a U meant so far below F that you’re Ungraded. I had two U’s and two D’s. So of course when you apply to university with two U’s and two D’s the acceptance rate is not gonna be good.

“I applied to four universities that my sister applied to and got rejected by all four.”

ONE QUARTER TO MAKE IT WORK

Once again, Fernandes got a break. He struck up an email conversation with the admissions team at the University of Northwestern, where his sister Bernice was attending. And he begged.

“I began emailing back and forth with them asking them to give me a second chance, and they said, ‘We’ll tell you what, we’ll give you one quarter, you do well, you stay, you don’t do well, you’re out.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Fernandes didn’t waste his chance. Not only did he do well that first quarter, he got good grades for four straight years.

GOODBYE TO A BRUTAL INDUSTRY

Meanwhile, each summer, Fernandes was living something of a double life back home in Tanzania.

He had become a national television personality when, at 17, he was noticed for his “animated” play on the soccer pitch and encouraged to translate that enthusiasm to TV. He hosted a handful of sports shows, and then he quit.

He didn’t quit because he was about to embark on his undergraduate studies in the U.S. He quit because of the negative feedback.

“TV is brutal,” Fernandes says. “We didn’t have Facebook, really, or Twitter or Instagram, they weren’t big then, and so it was mainly text messages. People would text in their views and comments, and what I would do is, right after the show, I’d go and read those comments, and as a 17-year-old, it was brutal.

“So I was burned out on the industry, and I said, ‘I don’t like this industry, I’ll never go back to it, I’m out, I quit.’ I was done, and I moved to the U.S. to go to undergrad.”

But it wasn’t long before he did go back — and when he did, television became a bigger part of his life than ever before.

  • David

    Wow, great achievements at only 24.

  • Because…

    I’m more surprised he didn’t apply for a joint degree to cut down the total time to 3 years instead of 4? Isn’t his family all poor and stuff and can’t afford to send him to school?

  • OG

    I’m a bit confused by the decision to get another degree in public policy so soon after Stanford. Wasn’t GSB enough?

  • Georgina Shilla

    Wow, whoever you, it’s sad that your intention is to disregard his personal journey. I actually went to elementary school with Benji. I’ve know their family since childhood. He was sponsored by one of the families that worked at the school. We all knew benji was sponsored to be there.

    I think the assumption you make from his humble beginnings is clearly not where their family is today. As a fellow Tanzanian, I know this family, one of faith and their faith led his father to start a church. And yes, today his father is on Tv because his church services are broadcasted because they are financially supported by the people at the church, but, that doesn’t disregard where their family started. Plus, you clearly aren’t African as cars in Tanzania now sell for as low $800 imported second hand from Japan. The take away here is as he grew so did his family, let us not forget that. They know the President Magufuli because the President has been to his fathers church multiple times now. It’s an inspiring journey for the whole family. Just because you don’t know the details, doesn’t mean you need to project assumptions. I’m done here.

  • Bootstraps

    Benjamin’s dad is the founder of Agape Television Network and seems like there is some sort of connection between him and TING. Looking at Benjamin’s linkedin it appears he got his start on his dad’s television network. And what about the lucky sponsorship from a British family? I’ll wager it was through his dad’s church or his dad’s connections. He even claims his parents are “good friends with President Magufuli.” This is the President of Tanzania mind you. He also claims that a good education was something he was never supposed to have. But here he’s talking (in Swahili) about every time he was going to school he was praying in a car with his mama (there’s a YouTube clip on this). Do you know how expensive it is to have a car in Tanzania?

    I think he has an interesting story and he probably does believe the narrative, but there is a heck of a lot of family and his dad’s church’s help and beginnings that maybe aren’t quite as humble as the article makes out to be. A lot of the “lucky breaks” weren’t luck at all. Went to a top MBA program and the sad/frustrating part was how many students believed they were middle class and made it there on entirely their own merits. I ran into very few, even less from the international crowd, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made it there with just hard work and luck, real luck. To be clear, I think he will do good for the country of Tanzania and he did work hard for that slot at GSB, there’s just more to it than the story makes out.

  • MMB

    Incredible! Very inspiring! I wish him the best

  • John

    Fantastic story, very inspiring, Africa needs more leaders like this!