UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

2012 Sustainability Immersion Insights: Wise Words from Africa

May 21, 2012 By Jessica Thomas

By Anna Diehl, MBA 2012

The third in a series of  reflections on UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Sustainability Immersion, our capstone experiential learning course where graduating MBAs work to solve real-world business challenges in Eastern North Carolina and East Africa.

In a few short weeks, I will be sitting at my new desk at General Mills using my newly minted MBA brain to make decisions, solve problems, and drive results. Although the majority of “MBA brain mass” was developed over the previous seven quarters, the Sustainability Immersion brought to life many principles that extend beyond theories and formulas and prepared me to continue to enable change in the “real world.” Here are a couple lessons that stood out:

MBAs meeting with women at the beauty salon

MBAs meeting with Yehu Finance entrepreneurs

Approach life with childlike inquiry. As part of our project with Yehu Microfinance, I squeezed into a 15 x 15 beauty salon with three other MBAs and 13 women to participate in a microcredit group meeting in Likoni, Kenya. As the meeting went on in Swahili, I was able to see life transpire as some women checked cell phones, jotted notes, gossiped with friends, and glanced into the busy street outside. I also saw big brown two year old eyes staring into my face from his mother’s arms. His eyes were full of hundreds of questions—“Who is this person?” “Why is she so funny colored?” “Why isn’t she talking?” . . . Through our conversation of eyes and smiles, I was reminded of the beauty of pausing to absorb the world around you and seek answers. As the day progressed this state of inquiry was essential when words failed due to language barriers and we worked to connect our MBA knowledge with the reality of these women’s lives.

Choose dancing. “As business people we have to choose. We can’t treat everyone the same. We must privilege voices and set priorities,” our professor, Lisa Jones Christensen stated as we sat on the on the patio of our Mombasa home.  Lisa’s quote reminded me that we are trained decision making machines at business school and emphasized how the immersion taught me to thinking even more deeply about that power.

The ability to have choice was one of the first observations we made about what separates

MBAs choose dancing!

MBAs choose dancing!

privilege from poverty.  As I move forward into my presumably comfortable and privileged corporate career, I’ve learned about my biases. I’ve learned how inadvertent it is to listen to the loud voices or voices that are easier to hear. But I also have sat and listened to the “crazy dancers” of their community. I listened to a restaurant owner in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia describe how the act of quality service and products can be an incremental step towards dignity and change for a new Ethiopia. I’ve also heard a homeless man describe how he wants to help make a difference in his community. As I prepare for the future I know the most rewarding decisions aren’t as always safe and may look a little silly to others. In fact they may look a lot like dancing. But dancing isn’t so bad if you know your values, you know who  you are, and allow yourself to smile a bit.