Event Summary: MBAs on Careers in International Development
We were delighted to hold an interactive career panel with first-year Wharton MBA students to discuss career opportunities in International Development. MBA students candidly discussed their experiences entering the public sector, working abroad in third-world countries, and coming to Wharton to pursue their MBAs. For everyone who couldn’t make it, here’s a summary of the discussion.
First, the MBA students had an opportunity to introduce themselves and describe their experiences to the group:
Justin grew up in New York City and studied Politics and Economics at Stanford University as an undergraduate student. While at Stanford, he worked for several think tanks concerned with economic research and policy. Justin spent his summers working for a local nonprofit organization in Ghana, the World Bank in Sierra Leone, and doing research for the Sierra Leone national government. After graduating from Stanford, he traveled back to Sierra Leone to write speeches and conduct research for the country’s foreign minister. Justin then went on to work for the Tony Blair African Governance Initiative, which helps build practical governmental processes and international relations expertise needed to set up institutions around the executives of third-world nations. The goal of the African Governance Initiative, Justin said, is to construct stable governments in post-conflict and third-world countries in order to attract more foreign direct investment into these countries. After his time with the African Governance Initiative, Justin went on to work at McKinsey for two years and is now at Wharton to pursue his MBA.
Justin offered several points of advice for students looking to become involved in international development after graduation. First, he recommended students go abroad during school to places in which they want to work to gain knowledge and get experience working on the ground. He said that it is important for young people to take risks, build credibility, and help small local organizations develop. Additionally, he noted that experience working on the ground in foreign countries helps students develop skills that are important in making the transition from private sector to international development.
Josh went to college in Australia, earning Finance and Law degrees. He took a semester off to travel to Ethiopia to help with accounting for an NGO. He then spent two years working in strategy consulting in Australia, and moved to Nigeria for 3 months to work with TechnoServe, a nonprofit that hires former bankers and consultants to build businesses and entrepreneurship in rural areas of Nigeria. Josh then traveled to Sierra Leone and joined Innovations and Poverty Action (IPA), a nonprofit that hires economics majors out of school to manage programs in developing countries. Josh had the opportunity to manage a country office, made up of 20 workers. Before coming to Wharton for his MBA, he managed cash-for-work projects in Sierra Leone for the World Bank.
Sonia began by stressing that the time to start traveling and working in international development is right after graduation, as students have nothing to lose by going abroad. Girl 1 began working at the Clinton Foundation as an intern, as part of the Foundation’s HIV AIDS initiative. After graduation, she spent six months in India at a rural microfinance nonprofit. In 2009, she joined MFX Solutions, a startup formed by microfinance leaders to solve the problem of currency risk associated with foreign aid and investment. As firms invest billions of United States Dollars into foreign nations, MFX structures those loans in the developing nation’s local currency. Sonia recommended that undergrads be entrepreneurial, take risks, and get field experience to demonstrate a passion for international development.
Brooke deferred her admission to Amherst to work as a journalist for a human rights organization abroad, writing about microfinance. While at Amherst, she received a fellowship to work with professors doing microfinance research. After her junior year, she worked for Goldman Sachs as a summer analyst, an experience which drove her away from the private sector and motivated her to work in international development. Since graduation, Brooke has worked for IPA, which she says offers good mentorship, direct involvement in policy research, and great growth opportunities for those interested in management. She also noted that there are plenty of opportunities in the US for international development work, but many of those opportunities require some field experience.
Alec is currently pursuing MPA and MBA degrees jointly. He noted that the international development field is a great way to get started out of college because there are countless opportunities for young people to have a meaningful management experience. Additionally, there are many niche interests in the field, so there is something for everyone. Alec graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Economics, and immediately upon graduation was selected to be a New York City teaching fellow. Even though he had no prior development experience, Alec went to Ghana to volunteer at a refugee camp, where he taught children and developed the camp’s fundraising program. Next, he worked as a grants manager for the International Rescue Committee in Indonesia managing a portfolio of funding. He said the IRC helped him get experience writing complex proposals and taught him the fundamentals of post-conflict humanitarian aid programs. Alec was then moved to IRC headquarters in New York to work on a regional business development team, and is now at Wharton for the MBA portion of his degree.
After the panel introductions, we opened up the floor for a question and answer period. Here are some excerpts from the discussion:
Why are you pursuing an MBA? What degree options are there after working in international development?
Brooke thinks that an MBA is the most useful graduate degree to pursue because it yields more hard skills than an MPA. Effective management is key to local nonprofit organizations, and she believes that the management skills learned while in an MBA program will be able to help her manage more effectively in the future.
Alec agreed, noting that an MBA confers valuable finance and management skills. In his experience, senior managers in international development are forced to be generalists, so a broad business education serves aspiring managers well. Additionally, Alec finds that an MBA gives students an opportunity to transition into the private sector in the future.
Sonia added that MBAs are a scarce resource in microfinance and international development, and having a background in finance or management can help when speaking to investors.
How have you dealt with the salary constraints associated with lower-paying jobs abroad?
Josh worked for a semester and asked for donations to save up cash before going abroad, and recommends that students find opportunities that provide funds or grants to work internationally. He noted that although the pay isn’t as good in international development, living expenses are much than they are in the US, so paid work is usually enough to cover those expenses.
Brooke highlighted the fact that there are more stable, well-paying careers at the World Bank and UN. Although these careers pay more and offer more stability, they offer less field experience and responsibility.
Have you thought about entrepreneurial opportunities in international development?
Justin told the audience about his friends, who have started businesses abroad and raised funds to invest in local businesses in third-world countries. He remarked that there are high barriers to entry, including capital, financing, and field experience – he recommended not to start from scratch with an entrepreneurial endeavor.
Brooke spoke about the dangers of entrepreneurial ventures in international development, explaining that there are many opportunities to misspend donated money and starting a nonprofit abroad necessitates a huge investment of time, money, and energy.
Josh cautioned students against forming an NGO, as it is very hard to avoid “failing softly” – NGOs don’t go out of business in the same way as for-profit firms, so it is possible to continue to spend money without having an impact. In order to start an effective NGO, Josh recommended having a concrete vision before accepting funding.
Where does funding for international development projects come from?
Sonia explained to the audiene that NGOs often act as for-profit banks and fund microfinance projects. Additional funding sources are private impact investors and grants.
Brook broke down investors into three types: those focused on social return, those concerned with financial returns, and impact investors who are interested in both.
WBPA would like to thank our guest speakers for joining our discussion and attendees for making this a great event. We hope to see you again soon!