Here at IE Business School, there’s a wide array of social impact initiatives to get you and your fellow students to use what you learn in the classroom to make a difference in society.
One of those initiatives is the Financial Times (FT) Challenge, an annual competition that encourages the next generation of business leaders to make a difference through their proposals. This year’s challenge was sponsored by Stop the Traffik, a global movement of individuals, activists and organizations around the world who passionately give their time and energy to prevent human trafficking.
The objective of the challenge was to raise awareness of the issue and convince corporate partners to promote the organization’s STOP app, a smartphone application that enables people to report the signs of human trafficking and forced labor that they see in their day-to-day lives. The goal of the app is to collect grassroots data and then develop the wherewithal to analyze it.
Out of 60 submitted proposals from different universities, four IE Business School MBA students were part of the winning team. We had the chance to sit down and talk with them to learn more about the contest and their experience participating in it. Here’s what we learned.
About the team
Team Umoja, which means “unity” in Swahili, was made up of four IE Business School MBA students—Matt Davis, Becky Jefferies, Debanjan Mal, and Felicia Okoye—along with four others from the other participating regions (the Americas and Asia/Africa).
The students found out about the competition through various media, be it Campus Life or the IMBA newsletter, and were drawn to it for the social impact component and the one-of-a-kind opportunity of using their business acumen to help a nonprofit organization.
Like all IE Business School students, these four come from diverse backgrounds—personally and professionally.
Rebecca brought her “expertise in marketing communications, brand strategy, product launches and market research to the team.” Matthew comes from a professional background in consumer goods, but his education was in art history and anthropology, and he has always had a passion for civic and social engagement. Felicia’s background is in corporate communications and she’s worked predominantly in public relations in London for six years, before moving to Nigeria to work for a nonprofit foundation. Debanjan has “an engineering background and worked for more than 9 years in the IT industry.”
The early stages: forming the team
When it came time to get a team together, Rebecca took the lead. “When I decided to form a team, I not only thought about who would be inspired by the challenge and truly care about making a difference, but I also had a few people in mind from my classes who I thought were incredibly talented but hadn’t had a chance to work with yet,” she tells us. “Felicia and Debanjan were the first two I reached out to—Felicia because I believed she would bring unique ideas to the table and she had past experience in the social realm, plus she was someone in my class who I admired and wanted to get to know better; Debanjan because he is an absolute whiz and knows so much about technology (our class often joked about how much of a genius he is, referring to him as ‘King Deb)…. Felicia suggested Matt, who is an activist from the U.S.… and rounded the group out perfectly.”
There was also a requirement for the team to have at least one team member from each region (the Americas, Europe, and Asia/Africa), so the students used their personal connections to get several students from Oxford and Harvard on board, as well as someone from the United Nations in Nigeria. In the end, there were eight team members.
The working process
After forming a team, it was time to get the ball rolling. “We started with a vision and a strategy, but we took that and broke it down into practical, tactical parts that could easily be taken and deployed in real life.” Rebecca says. “For example, we didn’t just say, ‘you should partner with an NGO on the ground in South Africa’—we researched the specific organization that they should partner with and had concrete reasons to justify why they were the right partner.”
Of course, there were challenges along the way. The team was forced to work remotely, and the IE students had never met the members from other regions. “We worked our way through many broken Skype calls and eventually split the work between pairs of people who were co-located,” Rebecca explains. “It was not easy to keep everyone on the same page but ultimately we got into a good working groove and figured out a good way to stay connected and keep things moving forward.”
Using these communication and technology skills, the team moved forward to the next round. Out of the 60 proposals the competition received, Team Umoja was chosen as a finalist, at which point they were asked to develop their proposal into a 12-page business plan.
But as they developed their plan, the group realized the issue was much more extensive and complex than they had anticipated. According to Felicia, “The landscape, customer profiling in new regions and generally getting to understand this murky, muddled world of exploitation was particularly difficult to grasp.” The team changed course, deciding to “hone in on a geography, a specific type of trafficking and a specific stage in the trafficking process in order to deliver a practical, executable business plan.”
Luckily, the IMBA program had prepared them for the various challenges the project presented. Matthew says that “the group work, especially in the first term of the IMBA, really helped me prepare for this challenge. You have to know when to speak and when to listen. You learn to recognize the unique contribution of each team member.” Rebecca adds that it helped tremendously to make use of technology-based tools, like beacons and gamification, which they also learned about at IE Business School.
The IMBA had also prepared the students indirectly. Felicia tells us that there was a connection between the project and a Social Impact Lab she had previously been doing through the school. “Two of us were in South Africa in the summer, and were able to provide insights that would have been difficult to achieve remotely. From the corporate partnerships we agreed on, through the impact measurement techniques and the four marketing P’s, everything was based on our actual surroundings and learnings. I think this knowledge of the market made a huge difference in our project.”
After months of hard work, communication and cutting-edge ideas, Team Umoja took home first place at the Financial Times event in October 2016. Their project stood out for its innovative marketing plan, focusing the campaign on South Africa due to the country’s reputation as a trafficking hotspot. Their business plan outlined how to get more people to download and use the STOP app on their mobile devices, especially those who have the means to report human trafficking abuses, as well as ways to incentivize engagement with the app through social media and gamification techniques.
Looking back, Team Umoja recognizes they couldn’t have overcome the many challenges—finding a focus, collaborating remotely, and working in an entirely new area—without the skills they learned at IE Business School.
According to Felicia, “The IMBA program gives you important frameworks to challenge assumptions and explore possibilities, which we applied extensively. We applied a lot of business strategy and marketing tactics to our proposal for the FT MBA Challenge.”
Debanjan adds that “working in a group of highly talented people from different parts of the world, plus the collaboration, trust, and understanding you develop with them, were incredibly useful skills throughout this exercise.”
On a broader level, the team reflects on their overall experience at IE Business School and how it has met their expectations.
“My personal experience at IE has been exceptional—and that is entirely due to the people I have been surrounded by this year. While we learn a lot from our professors, we learn even more from each other. As an American who had limited exposure to other cultures prior to the IMBA, I see the world through a different set of eyes now,” Rebecca tells us. “The things I’ve learned by spending time and forming bonds with people from all over the world can never be learned in a classroom alone, which is what has made the IE experience so special for me.”
Matthew agrees. “I learned techniques and thought processes from professors who were dedicated and highly qualified. Our professors challenged business orthodoxy and inspired us to think creatively and for ourselves…. IE also attracts a quirky bunch of students from around the world. People who are free-thinkers, imaginative, fun and open-minded. The environment is much more collaborative than competitive. Everyone at IE wants to become a big success, but everyone here has a different definition of ‘big success.’”
Debanjan highlights the types of skills he acquired. “The IMBA program has been one of the best experiences for me, both professionally and personally. Here, I not only developed core business skills, but worked extensively on building my soft skills as well by undergoing one of the most intensive teamwork processes ever.”
Thinking about participating in the FT Challenge yourself? Team Umoja gave us their advice. First, take advantage of your resources: “We met with several professors at IE throughout the process and they helped spark some great ideas that we incorporated into our final plan. Our mentor from Stop the Traffik was also extremely helpful along the way,” says Rebecca. Also, make sure you choose driven and dynamic group members who will go the extra mile. But most importantly, the group stresses that the key is to “approach the challenge with as much empathy as possible! By caring about the cause at hand and being passionate about the work you are doing, you’ll end up having better ideas.”