If all goes to plan, six Smith School of Business MBA students will have helped create 290 full-time jobs in northern and eastern Sri Lanka – the regions most devastated by a 25 year civil war. And it only took them three weeks.
In May, the students traveled 9,000 miles from College Park to put their business skills into practice and engage in hands-on consulting for three different Sri Lankan organizations. The three pairs of students each assisted a local organization refine its accounting systems, enhance management and workflow structures, and forecast profits. The teams also helped their organizations write concept notes for grant proposals for US government funding. Upon returning to Maryland, the students learned that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had accepted each organization’s concept note and invited a full grant proposal.
The students’ contributions drew praise from Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States and Mexico. Prior to departing for Sri Lanka, the Ambassador invited the students to a private dinner briefing at the Embassy in Washington, DC during which he spent three hours with the six students explaining his country’s culture, history, and business norms.
"These types of small start-up business assistance programs are very beneficial to the people of Sri Lanka, and they will help ensure peace and prosperity for the country,” said Ambassador Wickramasuriya. “Promoting economic growth in these former conflict-affected regions, which suffered tremendously from the ravages of terrorism for three decades, is an important mechanism to reinforce the Government of Sri Lanka's efforts toward lasting reconciliation. If people cannot make ends meet and there is poverty and deprivation, then it will be harder to achieve reconciliation. We appreciate these University of Maryland MBA students bringing their technical skills and business knowledge to provide assistance to my country," Ambassador Wickramasuriya said.
The students agreed that the experience had been experience had been professionally and personally rewarding.
“I had the opportunity to create a business plan which included financial statements, forecasts, and a marketing and management plan for a small company,” Yasin Benzawi said. “This allowed me to leverage the skills I have developed in the MBA program. I genuinely helped someone while gaining a priceless experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Benzawi and Jonathan King consulted for Sivanarul Vocational Training and Production Center, an agriculture-based manufacturing and sales business established to provide sustainable employment and vocational training opportunities to conflict-affected widows, disabled women and youth, and foster children. Established in 2012, the business includes producing varieties of packed rice flour, powdered chili and spices, coconut and sesame oils, and dry rice.
“We are very appreciative to the MBA team from University of Maryland. They gifted us, in a very short time period, their valuable work in the form of a revised and completed concept note and financial forecasts,” said Thirugnanasampanthar Sivapathaviruthayar, a member of Sivanarul’s board of directors. “They’ve greatly helped us succeed in providing sustainable support for conflict-affected people and war-torn communities in need.”
Jarrod Fenstermacher and Katherine Vaughn were assigned to Oddusuddan Palms Resource Development Co-Operative Society, a co-op that sells a variety of palm by-products such as woven handicrafts, alcohol, honey, and jam. Founded in 1989, Oddusuddun’s financial records, original deeds, and nearly $14,000 in cash – the organization’s entire liquid assets – were destroyed in the civil war when the bank in which they were all deposited was bombed. The factory itself was also destroyed.
Yuan He and Natalia Markova consulted for Nanattan Integrated Agricultural Project which includes 4,200 members who operate such diverse businesses as rice mills, gas stations, and poultry farms.
"This type of on-the-ground experiential learning is one of the most important experiences these students will have at Smith,” said Professor Kislaya Prasad, the faculty member who managed the course. “They were challenged with putting their academic and professional talents to the test in a difficult post-conflict setting in the developing world. They performed superbly and made substantial contributions to the three Sri Lankan partners."
Beyond significant language barriers, incomplete and paper-based accounting records, and a difficult climate, the students faced challenges unique to the developing world: lack of hot water, long, bumpy, dusty car rides on dirt roads, and an ice cream vendor who noisily began selling his goods at 6 a.m. outside their hotel windows.
“This is the reality of consulting [in the developing world]: it’s often messy, frustrating, and uncomfortable,” said Katherine Vaughn. “You need to be flexible both in your expectations and your approach to problem solving. We drew on our creativity in addition to our MBA skills in coming up with workable solutions.”
This experience is part of a public-private partnership initiated by USAID to offer consulting services to Sri Lankan start-up businesses and organizations seeking grants from USAID and Land O'Lakes. Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and International Executive Service Corps also played key roles in implementing the program. Smith’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) and Center for Social Value Creation (CSVC) provided financial and logistical support.