These Booth MBAs Are Betting Big On Africa

Sarah McGraw. Courtesy photo

Sarah McGraw had never been to Africa before she spent part of this summer in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, working with Hello Tractor, an ag-tech social enterprise that connects tractor owners and smallholder farmers through a farm equipment sharing app. The Booth MBA student, now in her second year, had always wanted to visit Africa but had never had the opportunity.

Now she can’t wait to get back. 

“It was an absolutely fantastic experience,” McGraw tells Poets&Quants. “I actually came to Booth knowing that I wanted to find a social enterprise startup to work for for my summer internship, and so when I found out about the VestedFellows program, it was an unbelievable opportunity for me. And I really can’t say enough good things about my experience with the fellows program, but also my experience in Nigeria with HelloTractor.”

McGraw, a former philanthropy advisor for JP Morgan, had never worked directly with a social enterprise. “It gave me an entirely different perspective in terms of what it takes to start and scale and operate this type of social business day to day that I never would’ve had otherwise,” she says.

Both personally and professionally, the experience was “transformative,” McGraw says. “I learned so much of my colleagues in Nigeria, just kind of their perspective, some of their insights in terms of how to navigate the complexities of these agriculture interests in Nigeria — but also how to drive meaningful impact for local communities. So, I think for me going forward — and Jeff and Lavanya will laugh at this — I’m still trying to get my husband to move back to Nigeria or potentially somewhere else on the continent. I’m not quite sure if I’m gonna be able to do that, but this experience really did move me, so that I now know that I want to be involved with social enterprises in some capacity that allows me to work on the ground in emerging markets. I want to really make that connection with local communities and really be able to see the impact on the ground. So, wherever I end up, whether it’s here or there, that will stick with me for sure.”

‘SO MUCH UNTAPPED OPPORTUNITY IN THOSE MARKETS’

Alibek Ismankulov. Courtesy photo

Alibek Ismankulov spent his fellowship in Nairobi, working with ConnectMed, a startup helping patients with diabetes and hypertension across sub-Saharan Africa through coaching and more affordable medication sourcing. It wasn’t a huge departure for Ismankulov, who worked in healthcare in his native Kyrgyzstan before joining Booth’s MBA program. But the VestedFellows experience sparked and solidified a desire to work with entrepreneurs rather than follow a more traditional MBA path.

“I worked in healthcare in central Asia, so I was interested in entrepreneurial ventures and developing markets,” Ismankulov tells P&Q. “And this was an interesting opportunity for me, because I’d never been to Africa before and I wanted to explore the region. I’d heard that it’s a hotbed for startups, especially in healthcare, especially in Kenya — and I was very happy to see how VestedWorld matched me with the healthcare company in Kenya, which was exactly what I wanted to do for the summer.

“It was a real eye-opener,” he continues. “Living in a remoter part of the world, you have all these stereotypes of places that you’ve never been to. But it turned out that Kenya is much more developed than my own home country, Kyrgyzstan, which was striking and surprising. They had a lot of things implemented that a lot of developed countries don’t have, for example mobile payments. You could pay for your supermarket purchases or for anything, almost, all with your phones out, which is amazing. And a lot of other things, too.”

Ismankulov went into the fellowship not knowing what to expect. He was pleasantly surprised by everything. And he is likely to return.

“Originally, I was thinking about going into more of a traditional MBA pathway like consulting, but after my summer in Kenya, I realized how much I love entrepreneurship, how much I knew about developing markets, and that there’s so much untapped opportunity in those markets,” he says. “So I definitely am going back, either to Africa or some other developing markets and doing something there.”

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