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MBAs with a cause: the rise of microfinance in higher ed programs

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Advocates of financial inclusion likely cheered when the Harvard Business School (HBS) announced its first executive program providing management and leadership training to career seekers in inclusive finance and microfinance. Partnering with Accion International, the global nonprofit, the six-day course builds upon the elective course “Business at the Base of the Pyramid ”.

Both offerings are growing, says Matt Segneri, leader of the Social Enterprise Initiative overseeing the program. “The growing interest of our MBA and executive education students is inspiring. Many seek to develop inclusive businesses models delivering social impact.”

Many other programs exist. For professionals serious about a career in financial inclusion, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation committed more than $15m to create global masters and development practice two-year degrees. The goal was providing students with the skills to better identify and address the global challenges of sustainable development. The first MDP program, at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), conferred degrees to the first cohort in May, 2011.

Meanwhile, the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University entered its fourth year fellowship with the CARE Access Africa Project. Microfinance fellows travel to Africa each summer working on inclusive finance projects set up by CARE, a leading global humanitarian organization. This year’s fellows aim to link informal savings groups to banks, thereby giving women entrepreneurs in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda better access to business loans, accounts and other financial services. The end goal is making a business case for banks to provide services to CARE’s primary target audience: rural-based female entrepreneurs earning just $2 a day, says Lauren Hendricks, executive director for CARE USA.




(L-R) Melanie Misago (cashier), an unidentified woman, Donathe Butoyi (group president) and other members of the the VSL group Dushirehamwe Muri, or “Let’s be united,” dance in celebration following one of the solidarity group meetings in the Mutimbuzi community near Bujumbura, Burundi. Photograph: Valenda Campbell/CARE

Helping the one billion women lacking access to financial services. Women’s World Banking, the nonprofit group, partnered with the Wharton Executive Education program, Credit Suisse, and Cisco, to launch the Leadership for Innovation and Diversity program. This one-year program connects high potential female employees working at 20 financial institutions to develop leadership and management skills required to serve low-income women.

The executive edge

Experts have many theories on why more executives want to learn about inclusive finance. Dan LeClair, executive vice president of global nonprofit, AACSB International. sees MBAs and corporate executives wanting meaningful work beyond profit. “Business schools, by partnering with charities, VCs and NGOs provide students with life-changing experiences,” he says.

Hendricks from CARE USA notes the MBA fellows bring a data-driven mindset and approach traditionally absent in the NGO sector. “Our fellows help us build the business case for our partner banks to reach rural-based women entrepreneurs typically earning around $2 daily, a traditionally underserved segment.”

Last year’s fellows went to Côte d’Ivoire and identified what products and services might work for banks reaching this market. This year, a partner bank will launch a product or service around this work. “The MBA fellows help take that relationship from the core social responsibility phase to the core business phase,” Hendricks says.

Quantifiable results

Students’ testimonies echo this

sentiment. M Mudassar Aqil, CEO of FINCA Microfinance Bank in Pakistan joined the HBS-Accion program this April because he found the commercial banking sector lacked creative approaches towards inclusive finance. His work with his bank – providing loans, accounts and insurance services to low income entrepreneurs – enlightens him about Pakistan’s limitations with financial services. “I saw a great opportunity for innovation and growth,” he says.

Aquil made strategic changes within his bank upon completing the program, launching new digital financial services including smartphone based mobile wallets for his clients, and connecting them to a digital payment system. “I learned that financial inclusion is making big strides globally and that technology is the biggest enabler to make this happen.”

In summer 2014, Tepper School graduate James W Blanks, now a management consultant with KPMG, joined three fellows in Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya to develop an evaluation system for CARE’s microfinance program across Africa. Blanks and his team performed hundreds of field studies, identifying opportunities for each village. This work resembled a company’s product launch – but instead the goal was helping villagers overcome poverty, carefully examining what businesses and practices work in one region or country and which may apply in another.

Blanks appreciated seeing quantifiable results – CARE implemented his team’s recommendations and their data validated CARE’s assessments of which lending models did and didn’t work. He enjoyed interviewing village men in Burundi and learning about CARE’s efforts to empower their women through microfinancing made them better husbands. “I was moved seeing these men feeling proud and better supporting their wives by working hard. So as this emerging social consciousness spreads, the village culture changes and grows positively.”

Robert Meloche directs global financial inclusion at Visa; he attended the Harvard program. He found the HBS case model an effective way to explore the interconnected challenges surrounding financial inclusion. “The opportunity to then tackle those challenges with new colleagues from across the NGO, government and private sectors is invaluable.”

Many people in Niger have suffered from droughts and an inability to find food. Through CARE’s Village Savings and Loan program, Mamata Tinou began a cereal bank in her village of Genki.

While inclusive finance work feels noble for the executive students, challenges exist. Aquil finds senior practitioners and executives struggle with the challenges associated with first achieving sustainability, and then scale. Most can overcome the first hurdle but few successfully tackle the second. Blanks felt challenged connecting with locals, having them open up to his questioning. He also felt challenged reintegrating into US society, after seeing the level of poverty, the mental fortitude and resilience of people in Africa. “Much of the hardship we complain of as Americans seemed a little trivial.”

Meanwhile, the inclusive finance work between universities, banks and NGOs continues to grow. WWB and the Wharton school plan to repeat their partnership bringing in more executives for training next year while CARE Africa’s fellowship with the Tepper School gains popularity each year. Hendricks notes the end goal at CARE is for the financial sector as a whole to realize the business case for working with the unbanked population.

“MBAs help us work with the private sector more effectively and to achieve this goal.”

Content on this page is brought to you by Visa. sponsor of the Financial inclusion hub.

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