MIT graduate student Christopher Lowell combined a school-sponsored three-week internship in the mining industry in Rwanda with four weeks of African travel to shape what he called one of the most important experiences of his life.
Lowell went to Rwanda with three other students from the MIT Sloan School of Management as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Laboratory (G-Lab) -- a Sloan course that gives students the chance to work with international start-up companies.
For the first three weeks, Lowell and the rest of the team were in Rwanda, working to present a strategic plan to help boost the local mining industry. For Lowell, the work was "a crucial but small part of the total experience in Africa."
For the remaining four weeks, the group took to the road. "The traveling was the experience that most pulled us out of our element," Lowell said.
Together, the four attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa (only Lowell and one other reached the summit), rafted the Nile, went into the Congo and navigated through cultures that were both foreign and a bit daunting, Lowell said.
This year, G-Lab projects took 160 students to more than 17 countries over the January Independent Activities Period (IAP). The G-Lab course is designed to take students out of their comfort zones and highlight the special challenges faced by start-ups in emerging markets.
Teams of four were matched with companies in October, after which they met with company representatives weekly, either remotely or in a company's Boston offices.
During IAP, the companies sponsor three-week internships for each team, providing transportation and housing. Many of the Sloan students worked up to 15-hour days, helping them develop strategic plans.
"It really is a win-win," said Mike Cerda, a Sloan student who worked with Alfama Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical start-up in Portugal. "Most of us were ready to hit the ground running once we got there."
During the first semester, he and his team built their contacts and gathered information, both about the market and about the company itself.
Upon arrival, Cerda was immediately struck by some cultural differences. For example, rather than running off to grab something and sit at a desk, Cerda's Portuguese co-workers sat down and ate lunch together. "It took a little getting used to," said Cerda. "I caught myself looking at my watch a few times."
Those kinds of small observations were key to the overall experience, Cerda said. By seeing a culture with new eyes, Cerda and his group were able to evaluate both their own work styles as well as the company's, he said. "It was very rewarding," Cerda said.
Sloan student Kerry Bowie worked for Uberaba, an environmental and biotechnology firm in Brazil. Bowie's group made a tangible impact on Uberaba's future when they pitched their work before a group of venture capitalists and raised roughly $1 million to fund the company's expansion. "It was great," said Bowie. "G-Lab is a really great program and is something that distinguishes the Sloan program."
Lowell said the work was just part of a total cultural immersion. And, he said, one of the most rewarding aspects of his time in Africa was the friendship he forged with his three G-Lab teammates: Alicia Dermody, Zhiying Jiang and Anne Johnson.
Through the trip, the four worked, lived and traveled together. "We will know that for the rest of our lives, we will drink from each other's glasses," said Lowell. "G-Lab was the most valuable thing I did at Sloan."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2006 (download PDF).