The adage goes, "give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." Why not add, teach a man about the economics of fishing and he'll keep his business running and possibly employ thousands?
That's the goal of a first-of-its-kind MBA program at Colorado State University, run by Carl Hammerdorfer. Informally called the "Peace Corps MBA," it aims to teach students how to save the world one sustainable business at a time.
Hammerdorfer served in the Peace Corps in Mali in West Africa in the late 1980s. In his village, mango trees are everywhere, springing untended from the rich soil. He guesses that more mangos rotted on the ground than are marketed in some U.S. states. He recalls discussions in the village about using the mangos to make money. "We thought, 'What can we do with this?' We built a solar food dryer with people in our village. And we did some basic exploration of what the market for dried mango is and there is a market out there."
But Hammerdorfer didn't know how to attract financing, tap into supply chains or teach the villagers how to manage the business. He says his liberal arts degree made him well-rounded, but it wasn't fruitful for the mango trade. He hasn't returned to his old post but has few doubts about the dryer's fate: "My guess would be that kids are climbing on it!"
Hammerdorfer eventually got an MBA degree, which he used as the Peace Corps Director in Bulgaria. His staff helped apple farmers form a cooperative that is now shipping boxed fruit to Western Europe. Another farmer is supplying sweet corn to the KFC fast food chain.
Hammerdorfer says the difference was that many of the idealistic employees on his staff had MBAs. "I've met hundreds of people whose hearts, I think, are in the right place, but often times I've been left with the impression that they just don't have enough hard skills to work effectively and to even understand the economic dynamics and business dynamics that people are struggling with." He is hoping to give more people those skills, as the new director of Colorado State University's MBA program in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise.
At the CSU laboratory, engineers study the combustion in massive engines that push gas through pipelines. The research helped students develop a much smaller combustion chamber that fuels an energy-efficient, clean-burning cookstove.
Mechanical engineering student Sachin Joshi knows firsthand that the stove is desperately needed in villages in his native Nepal. "As soon as you walk inside the kitchen, it just hits you," he says. "You can't stay there for even a minute, your eyes start watering. Noses start to burn. You start coughing. You just can't stay there. It's like walking into a forest when there is a fire."
Joshi and other graduate engineering students teamed up with business majors to develop, finance and market the stove. It's an example of the type of projects that Hammerdorfer's Peace Corps MBA students will be pursuing in collaboration with other University departments and international organizations.
The stove was the brainchild of mechanical engineering doctoral student Dan Mastbergen, who developed it for his dissertation. "This is a stove, what we kind of, in the field, consider a clean cook stove," he explains, showing off the half-meter long metal box on legs. Sticks go into a ceramic clay tube (the combustion chamber) that burns the wood, providing clean, efficient heat for the stove. A chimney removes the smoke from the home, eliminating a major health problem.
But what's novel about Mastbergen's stove is that villagers are able to cook up more than just dinner. Some of the heat is converted into electricity that's stored in a small battery. "We can make about 20 watts," he says. "Just to put that in perspective, the compact fluorescent lights that you can get at the store now are typically around 15 watts. Enough to power one of those bulbs."
Sachin Joshi observes, "For people that haven't had light for generations, for hundreds of years, something like this is a like a miracle in a sense." He explains that the light allows children to study in the evening and women to make items to sell in the market the next day. The students have traveled to Nepal, as well as Nicaragua and India to test the stoves, and Joshi says they are already making a difference. "They earn $3 a day, $2 dollars a day. Even if they can add a dollar more, $2 more, that's a huge thing."
And with that money, they can pay for the $100 stove. That's key, according to CSU Business instructor Paul Hudnut. The locals have to want the item or frequent the business that MBA students have helped create. He says charity isn't the answer. "The evidence is in that while people like to be given things, that doesn't necessarily result in products that are designed for their needs." He also points out that often, the organization that gives those products away isn't sustainable. "And so it isn't there three years later when they need to replace a part."
Colorado State University officials are convinced that their MBA graduates will learn to do it right.
Carl Hammerdorfer says many non-profits and non-governmental organizations recognize the importance of hands-on solutions, and are eager to develop ethical businesses with a so-called triple bottom line. That's a focus on not only profits but also on the environment and society. "There's no question in my mind that business is the best vehicle, I think, for development," he says.
Classes begin in August for students in the new MBA program. In a few years, one of them may be helping villagers in Mali set up a dried mango empire.