Stanford’s Seed Program Launches In India

Stanford GSB Seed India campus

First day of classes at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business on September 16, 2016. Photo by Nathan Allen

Many believe the world’s greatest business potential lies within developing countries in Africa and Asia, and there’s data to back that belief up. According to the World Bank, in 2015 six of the 13 fastest-growing economies in projected GDP growth per capita were in Africa. The other seven were in Asia. The combination of growing workforces and a burgeoning middle class in many regions of these two continents has multinational companies — and business schools — salivating.

Now one of the world’s premier business schools is acting on the conviction that Asia and Africa hold untold potential just waiting to be unlocked. For the past five years, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business has worked in Africa to bring “Silicon Valley innovation and entrepreneurship” to local businesses and entrepreneurs through its Seed Program. And today (May 9), the school announced it will be taking its wildly successful program to India.

“The impact of Seed in West and East Africa has been astounding, with nearly two-thirds of participants reporting increased revenue and job creation,” Jesper Sørensen, an organizational behavior professor and executive director of the Seed Program, said in a release from the school. “We are five years into our journey, and just getting started. We believe — and have seen first-hand — that this unique model can help some of the most dynamic business leaders in these regions drive the kinds of firm growth that underlies sustainable regional prosperity. We are very eager to see its impact in India.”


The program includes three initiatives. Central to the whole effort is the Seed Transformation Program, which places select executives in West and East African countries to work with small- to medium-sized businesses. Executive coaches spend a year working with multiple companies at a time. The Seed Student Program places students in learning and internship opportunities at participating companies, and the Seed Research Program funds “critical research to discover breakthrough solutions to promote prosperity throughout the developing world,” according to the news release.

Designed in 2011 and launched in West Africa in 2013, participants in the Seed Program have trained more than 500 African business leaders. Based in Ghana and Kenya, the program has helped participating businesses raise a combined total of about $11 million in funding. Some 79% of participating companies have grown their customer bases, according to the school.


“The Seed hypothesis is that you can take skills and learning from big organizations and deploy them across industry sectors in the developing market,” James Crotty, a Seed coach, tells Poets&Quants. “That’s the hypothesis, but then you have to come out and see if you’re actually going to be able to make it happen. And there is no question that it works.”

Crotty, originally from Ireland, is an anomaly among the coaches. Most have either graduated from Stanford, have extensive experience in developing countries, or both. But Crotty, who holds an MBA from Manchester Business School and spent decades at American Express, has neither. He simply responded to an ad in The Economist. “This is not the first time I’ve been successful in responding to an ad in The Economist,” he laughs. 

Enduring nine interviews, Crotty was finally placed in Nairobi, Kenya, where he has been working with six businesses in industries from agriculture to digital marketing to retail fashion to healthy foods.

“If I looked at my own life, the reality is that I have a lot to be very grateful for,” says Crotty, noting he has spent the majority of his life building his career and enjoying full family support and good health.

“There are many great programs that help to alleviate the symptoms of poverty,” Crotty continues. “And feeding the hungry and caring for the sick is absolutely essential work that needs to be done. But, to my mind, it’s not enough. To make a lasting impact on poverty, we need to help people help themselves and create economic growth. And that’s what Seed is all about.”


For Hans Nilsson, who earned an MBA from Stanford in 1983 and has been involved with Seed’s Ghana office since 2014, the motivation to join Seed came from his desire to find “more meaningful” ways to spend his time. With his 60th birthday approaching, Nilsson says he heard about Seed at a Stanford class reunion. “What motivated me to get involved was being able to do something which is meaningful and makes a difference in people’s lives,” he says now. So Nilsson left a career that included CEO stints at tech and industrial tech companies to spend a year in Ghana. He ended up working with 13 countries in Ghana and Nigeria, and when his year was ending, multiple companies he had worked with asked for his continued help.

Now Nilsson travels to Ghana for two weeks every two months. “The experience has been better than I hoped in terms of seeing an impact,” he says.

The impact, Nilsson says, stems from seeing quality job creation. Unemployment in Africa is relatively low, he says. Indeed, the unemployment rate in Ghana was 5.2% in 2013 — a record low for the country. But those jobs don’t always pay enough to help families feed themselves, Nilsson explains. “This is about creating proper jobs,” he says.

“The impact is tangible and direct,” Nilsson continues. “And the opportunities to make a difference here are plentiful. And the enthusiasm and desire to change is strong. The speed at which things happen here is remarkable. There is also a strong level of gratitude. There is a much stronger level of connectedness than in the Western world.”


One of the featured companies to participate in the program is GoSolarAfrica, founded by Femi Oye. A “pay-as-you-go” electricity company, GoSolarAfrica installs, owns, and operates solar home systems. GoSolarAfrica also places innovative cooking stoves in homes that burn ethanol gel instead of normal fuel, which can cause respiratory issues to those cooking indoors. The idea, and Seed Program, helped Oye secure $1 million in funding from Acumen. Sincethen, Oye says, the company has sold more than 300 stoves and has impacted the lives of more than 3 million people.

“I’ve tried many ventures in my career, and learning about Seed was a miracle,” Oye said in the school’s release. “With Seed, I learned to use simple solutions to address a complex problem. It gave me the knowledge to experiment, attempt the unthinkable and make great things happen.”

The Seed Transformation Program will officially begin in India in August. Stanford is accepting coaching applications from now until May 26 for positions in India, and until June 30 for positions in East and West Africa.


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