Lessons from the Field

ESMT’s Responsible Leaders Fellowship program enables graduates to practice what they’ve learned.
Lessons from the Field

AT ESMT BERLIN in Germany, part of our mission is to “develop entrepreneurial leaders who think globally and act responsibly.” But if we want our business leaders to act ethically, we must do more than lecture students on business ethics or have them role-play possible reactions to moral dilemmas. We need to engage students in projects with real social and societal impact so they learn to consider the consequences of their actions and be mindful of social challenges.

To underline our belief that with managerial power comes responsibility, ESMT Berlin launched our Responsible Leaders Fellowship in 2013. The fellowship, which is available to every participant in our MBA and master’s in management (MIM) programs, allows graduates to volunteer pro-bono for up to six months in a social impact organization in emerging areas of the world. Most projects so far have been based in Africa and Latin America, where our graduates work with entrepreneurs, NGOs, or educational institutions.

To ensure that all interested graduates have access to the program, ESMT funds the travel, insurance, and a basic monthly stipend to cover all expenses such as food and accommodation. Money from the school is supplemented by private donors and the Friends of ESMT, a registered charity group that supports the school’s social projects.

Since the program began, ESMT has worked with a number of regular partner organizations. These include streetfootballworld, a football and education event organizer for disadvantaged children; TSIBA, an institute of higher education in South Africa that serves students from Cape Town townships, which are racially segregated areas on the periphery of larger cities; Welthungerhilfe, a German capacity-building NGO involved in ensuring food security, among other objectives; and Barefoot College, an Indian NGO focusing on solar electrification in rural areas located across the globe.

Participants also can secure their own projects by reaching out to organizations that are compatible with their interests. This year, for example, five fellowship participants sought out their own partner organizations in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Ecuador. In addition, one fellow is helping build a company that provides rural villages in Uganda with affordable, easy-to-access clean energy products for the home. Another is coaching entrepreneurs at a South African not-for-profit tertiary education institution that offers a degree in business administration at little to no cost to students. Another MBA graduate has helped integrate sustainability into a Brazilian social business that develops social entrepreneurship and digital competence through virtual learning platforms.

ESMT Berlin graduate Samantha Barlow

ESMT Berlin graduate Samantha Barlow works with low-income children in Accra as part of her fellowship
with the African Health Innovation Centre. The Centre partners with organizations such as Achievers
Ghana to improve education and life outcomes for girls specifically. Barlow led a Startup Pitch
Competition for participants between the ages of 11 and 16.


Fellows all negotiate contracts with their host organizations, outlining what the graduates will bring to the project. The associate dean of programs and the treasurer of Friends of ESMT both sign off on the contracts. Upon completing the program, fellows create reports that include details about the project and a description of the impact that their skills and knowledge had on the organization. These reports allow individuals to reflect on the time they spent on the projects, the way their skills can be deployed, and how leadership and business knowledge can have a positive impact on the world.

While many graduates have job, family, and financial considerations that prevent them from taking six months out of their lives to volunteer, the program has remained popular. Forty graduates have completed fellowships, and not one application has been turned down by the school.

Many students cite the fellowship as one of their reasons for choosing to pursue an MBA or MIM at ESMT. Ethney Kibet Kiprop, a Kenyan native who earned his full-time MBA in 2018, just completed his work with a community- based organization in Uganda. Because of the leadership skills he learned in the fellowship program, he says, he felt prepared “not only to run a scalable, profitable venture, but also to encourage the youth I worked with to believe they too can run businesses, get MBAs, and still give back.”

We find that tomorrow’s leaders deem such experiences to be as important as high salaries or career advancement. They don’t just want to learn vital business and management skills. They want to leave their marks on the world. As business schools, we have a responsibility to help our students do just that. We must ensure they will take responsible stands on ethical, environmental, and humanitarian issues when they assume leadership roles.

Nick Barniville is associate dean of degree programs at ESMT Berlin in Germany.

This article originally appear in BizEd's November/December print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected]

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