Dr. Marc J. Epstein is a Distinguished Research Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Management, Rice University. He is also Visiting Professor and Hansjoerg Wyss Visiting Scholar in Social Enterprise at the Harvard Business School. He previously held positions at Stanford Business School, Harvard Business School and INSEAD (the European Institute of Business Administration). A specialist in corporate strategy, governance, and performance management, he is the author or coauthor of over 100 academic and professional papers and twelve books, including his latest, Making Sustainability Work: Best Practices in Managing and Measuring Corporate Social, Environmental, and Economic Impacts.
Course – Dr. Epstein offers a course to Rice MBA students that gives them the chance to apply their real world entrepreneurial skills on the ground in Rwanda in coordination with the Rice 360 program. A compelling draw for the students is the opportunity to meet Rwandan entrepreneurs, to actually launch a new business in a developing country, and to introduce innovative healthcare products that can save lives. According to Epstein, “It is a terrific learning opportunity, and it is unique.”
Products – The MBA students are divided into teams and tasked with developing a viable business plan for a specific product in just four months. The products chosen by the students are prototype healthcare products developed by Rice undergraduate bioengineering students. Past products have been a low-cost neonatal incubator, a diagnostic lab-in-a-backpack, a plastic dosing device for liquid medicines, and a micronutrient powder for young children. The partnership between the Rice business and engineering students offers each group a unique opportunity to apply real world challenges and limitations to the process of commercializing innovative, appropriate technologies.
Plans – To formulate workable business plans, the MBA students have to answer many questions and overcome numerous obstacles. They source raw materials, find out where their product can be produced, how much it will cost to produce and distribute, how much customers are willing to pay, how customers will finance the purchase, take delivery and more. Even the simplest of these questions sometimes has very complicated answers.
Kigali Rwanda – There is no way to know how good each team’s ideas are until the students get to Rwanda. Once on the ground in Kigali, each team is provided a vehicle, an English-speaking Rwandan driver/translator, and a cell phone. After an initial briefing, the students are on their own, working from dawn to dusk, gathering information from potential customers, producers, suppliers and distributors. In the evenings, the students and faulty gather over dinner to debrief, to discuss what they have learned and to ask questions of guest speakers from government and business.
Results – The students’ progress in developing their businesses is truly amazing. The neonatal incubator student team located a Rwandan furniture maker to build the incubators, identified buyers for as many as 900 units, and prepared a prototype for testing by the Rwandan certification agency. For other students, the hard reality of the marketplace forces them to scrap much of their previous work and entire sections of their business plans have to be redesigned.
Wrap Up – After two weeks in Rwanda, the students return to the US to finalize their business plans for the end of semester, formal presentations and to relive their once-in-a-lifetime immersion into African entrepreneurship, small business and healthcare. Alumnus Jim Crownover, who chairs Rice’s Board of Trustees, said, “This is a life-changing experience for each one of the students — very different from what they can learn from a book and in the classroom”.
The Isoko Institute facilitates similar projects for partnering universities. Research, product development, market research and entrepreneurship are best understood and applied through strategic partnerships.