CAN BUSINESS SCHOOLS create cross-cultural, experiential learning opportunities for students without requiring them to travel overseas? Yes—when students participate in virtual exchanges, they can tackle global challenges and work with counterparts around the world. They don’t even need to board a plane.
At the University of Michigan’s William Davidson Institute (WDI) in Ann Arbor, we recently piloted a virtual exchange program. It was supported by a grant from the Stevens Initiative, a program within the Aspen Institute that seeks to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and across the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region). The Stevens Initiative is funded by the U.S. State Department, the Bezos Family Foundation, and other donors.
Because WDI’s aim is to develop economies by applying new principles in management education, we decided to focus our virtual exchange on social entrepreneurship. We designed an eight-week program in which Michigan students would work with peers from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, or Tunisia to identify a social issue in one of those four MENA countries and pitch an entrepreneurial solution. Students would not earn credit for the extracurricular program, but they would receive digital badges and electronic certificates of completion. E-learning modules would equip them with the tools they needed to complete their tasks. We named our program the MENA-Michigan Initiative for Global Action Through Entrepreneurship (M2GATE) and scheduled three offerings from January to July 2018.
RECRUITMENT AND SELECTION
To recruit participants in the MENA
countries, we contacted universities we
had worked with on previous projects.
These included Al-Akhawayn University
in Morocco, Tunis Business School,
and Benghazi Youth for Technology &
Entrepreneurship. We also opened the
program to undergrads in the MENA
region beyond our partner institutions,
and we asked U.S. embassies in the
MENA countries to spread the word.
In the U.S., we offered the program to
students from the University of Michigan’s
campuses at Ann Arbor, Dearborn,
and Flint, as well as to students at
Wayne State University in Detroit and
Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
We expanded the program to students
beyond the University of Michigan
system because we wanted to diversify
the profile of participants. Professors
proved to be our best ambassadors for
M2GATE, as they described it to their
students and encouraged them to apply.
Entrepreneurship hubs on several of the
Michigan campuses also disseminated
information about the program.
We directed interested students to
an application on our website, available
in English and Arabic, which informed
them that the program would require
a time commitment of about 32 hours
over 8 weeks. The application asked
about their interest in social entrepreneurship,
their social issues of interest,
areas of study, and the value they placed
on working cross-culturally.
Students on both sides of the Atlantic
expressed their excitement about working
on a global social entrepreneurship
project. U-M student Avirath Kumar
wrote, “I’ve lived in Michigan all of my
life, and I’ve never had the chance to
interact with others in a truly crosscultural
setting. With the increasingly
interconnected nature of business in the
21st century, being able to collaborate
with others from diverse backgrounds
is necessary to solve problems that are
more global than ever.”
Mohamed Chahbi of Tunisia captured
the sentiment of many applicants from
the MENA region: “Developing a partnership
with students in the U.S. may
help establish cutting-edge startups that
make a difference to humanity, based on
mixing and using different skills, talents,
and knowledge that comes from people
from different backgrounds.”
Many students from the MENA
region also were attracted to M2GATE because of the chance to win a trip to
the U.S. The team judged to have the
best pitch video from each of the three
program offerings would be invited to
Ann Arbor to make a live pitch and visit
area entrepreneurial ventures.
To select participants from the pool
of more than 1,300 applicants, we created
a point system, heavily weighing the
applicant’s motivation level, enthusiasm
for working collaboratively across
cultures, and curiosity about entrepreneurship.
We ultimately assembled a
diverse group of participants from 103
higher education institutions—98 of
them from outside the U.S.
The accepted students were assigned
to one of three cohorts, the first one
with 169 students, the second one with
167, and the third with 209. The three
iterations of the program took place
from January 26 to April 6, from April
6 to June 8, and from May 25 to July 20.
On their applications, students indicated
which eight-week cohort would work
best for them, and we took these preferences
into account as much as possible.
We divided the selected students
into teams of six: two Michigan students
plus four students from one of the
MENA countries. We grouped them by
their areas of interest, including healthcare,
education, environment, and labor/
employment. We created teams that
were diverse by gender and area of study,
and we made sure that each team had
at least one MENA student who was
fluent in English.
To help guide the teams through their
projects, we recruited mentors from the
four MENA countries—most of them
young professionals with experience in
entrepreneurship. Many had previously
been on exchanges sponsored by the U.S.
State Department, and they were eager
to give back on a volunteer basis by supporting
the budding entrepreneurs.
We kicked off our first cohort with a
live synchronous session conducted at
U-M’s Ross School of Business. It was
streamed via BlueJeans, a videoconferencing
service, to partner site locations
in the four MENA countries, where participants could join remotely or in
person. The giant video screens of the
U-M classroom were filled with images
of excited students from Benghazi, Cairo,
Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Tunis.
For administrators who had spent a year
designing the program, it was thrilling to
finally be able to say, “Hello, Benghazi!”
and get an enthusiastic response from
students 5,386 miles away.
The first session was dedicated to
orientation, and we created virtual
breakout rooms so the team members
could get to know each other. In an
icebreaker exercise called “uncommon
commonalities,” students identified
things they had in common that might
be a bit unusual. One team was delighted
to discover that all six members
shared a love of fried chicken!
Once the preliminaries were over, we
described the three assignments student
teams would need to complete during the
next eight weeks: a video that showed a
social problem in the MENA region; an
entrepreneurial concept for a solution;
and a video that pitched their proposed
product or service. To ensure consistency
across the presentations, we asked
teams to put together their concepts using
the Business Model Canvas approach
created by Alexander Osterwalder.
Students also were told how to access
our e-learning modules on cross-cultural
leadership, design thinking, and entrepreneurship.
The modules were asynchronous,
so students could watch them
on their own schedules. The modules
and chatroom were housed on WDI’s
custom-developed learning management
system, ExtendEd, which was also where
students would upload their assignments
to receive feedback from peers, mentors,
and instructors. In addition, we created a
Facebook group page where participants
could share photos, experiences, and
encouragement. Teams collaborated via
WhatsApp, Skype, and Google Hangouts.
To get students thinking about what
problems they wanted to tackle, we
offered two prompts: What are some everyday frustrations people face in your
society? and What are the social problems,
issues, or challenges you want to
address? We followed this same format,
and used the same prompts, when it
came time to run the second and third
cohorts of M2GATE.
Across the three cohorts, we found that
teams were interested in taking on many
thorny problems, particularly in the
areas of education, healthcare, and the
environment. Students in the MENA region
researched the issues by interviewing
local people, then they shared videos
of their interviews with their Michigan
teammates, offering them a window into
the challenges in the region. For many
Michigan students, these videos were
eye-opening experiences. For instance,
U-M student Ryan Berg noted that he
“didn’t know that child labor was such a
huge problem in Egypt.”
Once the Michigan students were
familiar with the issues, they added
their own perspectives, often building
on solutions already in place in the U.S.
For example, a Tunisia-Michigan team
chose to address high unemployment
rates among recent college graduates
in Tunisia. The Michigan students
pointed out that websites like Handshake
and LinkedIn help students land
internships and jobs while still in college.
This insight led the team to design
a job-placement site customized for the
In the first cohort, a Morocco-Michigan team that called itself The
Alters developed a solution to a similar
problem: the high rate of youth unemployment
in Morocco. This problem is
exacerbated by the fact that employers
want workers with soft skills, but few
schools provide adequate training
in these areas. The Alters designed a
low-cost after-school program to help
young people cultivate soft skills. (Watch the video.) The
group garnered first place among the
30 teams in its cohort.
Members of Kaizen, another Tunisia-Michigan team, chose as their issue
the lack of recycling in Tunisia. They
conceptualized SmartBin, which strategically
places easy-to-find recycling
bins throughout the country. Users can
download an app that tells them where
the nearest bin is; once they dispose of
their materials, the app calculates how
much they have recycled and offers them
a selection of rewards. The app also
alerts factories when the bins are full
so the contents can be reclaimed and
processed. SmartBin makes money by
reselling the recyclable materials and
displaying ads on the bins. Kaizen won
the top pitch award in the second cohort,
and some team members are currently
seeking additional funding so they can
move the idea forward. (Watch their videopitch.)
Trash was also the focus of a project
by EcoMENA, a team of students from
Egypt and Michigan who focused on the
Zabaleen. This community of garbage
collectors in Cairo has historically made
money by collecting and sorting waste,
then selling recyclable materials, but
their way of life has been threatened
by changing governmental policies.
EcoMENA students proposed an online
platform where local manufacturers
can purchase raw recycled products and
consumers can buy jewelry crafted from
recycled trash—for instance, a necklace
made from discarded coffee pods. This platform is designed to provide community members with extra income while keeping additional waste out of landfills. EcoMENA not only took the top spot in the pitch competition for the third cohort, the team also won first place
in the live pitch event in Ann Arbor. Several members of the EcoMENA team are working to develop the concept further. (See the team video.)
At the end of each eight-week session, students had to submit the pitch videos they had made to showcase their proposed social enterprises. These videos were posted on the ExtendEd portal and viewed by a panel of judges based in the U.S. and the MENA region. The judges had about a week to evaluate the submissions. Using a rubric provided by WDI, judges considered the strength of the idea, the solidity of the business model, market need, social impact, startup costs, and the ability of the team to deliver. They then chose a winner from each cohort.
Members of the three winning teams were invited to Ann Arbor in October for a weeklong, all-expenses-paid visit. During the first few days of their visits, team members worked with their U.S. counterparts to finalize their pitches for a live competition between the three teams. They also attended social events, including a trip to the Henry Ford Museum, where visitors could learn about the history of American innovation.
The live pitch event took place on a Wednesday at the midpoint of their visit. One winning team was selected by a panel of four judges and announced at the conclusion of the live event.
CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
Because M2GATE was a pilot program, we wanted to learn what was working and what could be improved. At the end of each iteration, we held a live synchronous session that allowed students to join with their entire cohorts to share their impressions and describe the challenges they had overcome. For instance, many said they had had to work hard to coordinate six busy schedules across time zones. Other participants wrestled with the free-rider problem common in any team collaboration. We addressed this during each offering by having mentors and WDI faculty “nudge” students who were not fully engaged.
For some teams, the biggest challenge was that members dropped out partway through, often due to scheduling conflicts or personal issues. In these instances, mentors encouraged remaining participants to move forward with their leaner teams. Overall, however, we observed that the most effective ingredients for building strong teams were students’ own efforts to step up and become leaders.
While they encountered difficulties, we believe students also reaped significant benefits. First, they developed the mindsets that will enable them to identify problems and become drivers of change; in fact, in a post-program survey, more than half of the respondents indicated they would use what they learned to start social enterprises in the future. This includes Abdulhamid Hosni Ali of Egypt, who viewed the experience as a launch point, saying, “I have learned things that I can use to make a positive change in my community.”
Second, students developed new skills, ranging from leadership to entrepreneurial abilities. They also gained self-confidence, improved their motivation, made lifelong friends, and learned the value of teamwork.
Finally, they mastered the ability to work across cultural divides. As Khouloud Baghouri of Tunisia put it, “The program taught me that it’s okay to be different and that difference is what creates magic!”
THE POSSIBILITIES OF VIRTUAL EXCHANGE
While M2GATE has been exciting for students, it has been just as invigorating for those who put the program together. According to Meghan Neuhaus, senior project manager at WDI, “It’s been life-changing to see what virtual exchange can do to bridge cultures and to connect young people across the globe.”
At WDI, we are so pleased by the success of M2GATE that we have launched the Global Virtual Learning Center, from which we plan to run more virtual exchange programs—both in the MENA region and in other parts of the world. My team and I believe that virtual exchange is an ideal way to nurture 21st century skills. This collaborative work prepares students to thrive as entrepreneurs and employees in an increasingly globalized, tech-centric world.
Amy Gillett is the vice president of education at the William Davidson Institute and the academic director of the M2GATE project.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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