For Belisa de las Casas, work in development carries a personal component.

Following Their Passion: Business Grads Bring Savvy to Global Development

By Mary A. Demsey
Published: Fall 2009

A select number of GWSB graduates are marching down new management paths. They’re not ignoring the bottom line so much as gazing beyond it. These are alumni who are lending their business savvy to international development.

“I’m applying business concepts to what I’m doing. I’m thinking of the whole thing from a business perspective,” said Belisa de las Casas, MBA, ’05. De las Casas leads an initiative at the Multilateral Investment Fund, an Inter-American Development Bank fund that focuses on innovative and entrepreneurial projects. Her job is to do something that was tried—never with adequate success—many times before: establish an economically viable business network of handicraft makers in Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru. This trade channel will be designed to supply domestic, regional and international markets.

The mother of two young children—who was pregnant with her first child when she did her MBA at GW— is especially committed to the undertaking. Peru is her home country.

The handicraft sector in the Andean region of Latin America is massive. In Peru, with a total population of 29 million, it is conservatively estimated that at least 2 million people are employed as artisans. Yet handicraft exports represented just a fraction of a percent of Peru’s $31 billion in exports in 2008, according to Peruvian government figures.

This cottage industry faces special challenges. Most of the crafts people are in the informal economy; some are farmers who only turn to artisan work for income between crops. They are small, independent entrepreneurs in far-flung villages where rugged mountains, desert and poor infrastructure make it difficult to get products to market. They have little knowledge about market demand. They sometimes have trouble getting the raw materials they need.

Adding Business Know-How

De las Casas is undaunted. She believes that smart business practices can sidestep those obstacles. Her plan gives the artisans basic business education, helps them add contemporary styling to their products and even involves the established fashion, interior design and architecture sectors. The business model she’s working on relies on in-country partnerships to oversee the project’s implementation. In the case of Peru, exporter association ADEX (La Asociación de Exportadores) will be the partner that carries out the on-the-ground work for the fund.

Eventually, a handicraft network could take advantage of economies of scale in raw material procurement, marketing and sales channels. Spinoff industries, such as raw material suppliers, could appear throughout Peru. And if de las Casas is right about what needs to be done, her model could be applied to other developing countries outside the Andes.

“When I decided to go to grad school, I wasn’t so sure about the development field. I had a very successful career in the private sector and did not understand development very much,” explained de las Casas, who worked for a large business conglomerate in Peru and, later, for a personal care product manufacturer in Florida. “As time went by, I realized that I had the possibility of making an impact, a meaningful one. I reinvented myself and I’m glad I did.

“Getting the degree helped me manage the transition,” she added.

For de las Casas and business graduates like her, the bottom line has more to do with lifting people from poverty than it does with quarterly profits.

“There has been a shift in thinking, a greater awareness of the ethical and principled role business can take in the world,” said Dean Susan M. Phillips. “We need people to continue to follow the traditional path into the private sector. But we also need people with business acumen involved in economic and social development, people who can bring business best practices to the development table.

“This is what we mean when we talk to our students about doing good,” she added.

GWSB alumni populate an impressive number of agencies, organizations and companies dedicated to development. Because of the University’s location in Washington and its faculty ties to multilateral agencies, it is not surprising to find a growing roster of School of Business grads at the World Bank and its International Finance Corp., the International Monetary Fund and, like de las Casas, the Inter-American Development Bank. They are also found at the Clinton Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Academy for Educational Development—a D.C.-based nonprofit working globally to improve education, health and economic development— and even business-focused nonprofits in far-flung regions of the world.

“Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend in pursuing careers in international development among GWSB MBA graduates and experienced alumni,” said Gil Yancey, executive director of the F. David Fowler Career Center at the School of Business. “This exciting work has taken our students as far away as India, Australia, Peru and into African countries such as Lesotho, Kenya and Tanzania. They have been afforded the opportunity to apply knowledge and competencies acquired in business school to essential challenges ranging from children’s HIV/ AIDS issues to climate initiatives.”

Yancey said preliminary employment statistics for 2009 graduates showed that 11.1 percent accepted jobs in the nonprofit sector. That’s a jump from the 4.7 percent who chose the nonprofit route in 2008.

Working on Behalf of Entrepreneurs

Mehir Desai always expected to be on the side of the underdog, helping developingcountry entrepreneurs fight red tape and other government obstacles. Today Desai, MBA, ’96, not only does work to provide a more equitable playing field for smaller companies, but he does it in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank.

Desai grew up in India before it was an emerging economic powerhouse. Today it is grouped with the up-andcoming nations collectively known as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

As a youth, Desai watched his parents—both entrepreneurs— hit wall after wall as they tried to help their companies grow. “This was the 1970s and India was very poor, a textbook case, in fact,” Desai explained. “My parents were trying to make ends meet and trying to run their businesses, and I could see that every step was just so difficult. Getting the business set up, getting factory space, paying taxes, hiring labor, understanding regulations…there were obstacles at every step.

“They spent a good deal of time in and out of government offices and paying government officials to get them off their backs,” he continued. “To me it was unbelievable that the people who were supposed to watch over us, the local and state governments, were actually getting in the way of families just trying to make a living. Government was taking away incentives to business growth.”

Desai decided he wanted to work with businesses, improve the landscape for small and mid-sized operations and, eventually, set up his own firm. He leveraged what he knew about the garment sector and the import-export world—thanks to his parents’ experiences—and began studying and working in the global apparel industry. Although his goal after he received his MBA was to work for Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne or another big clothing company, the 1990s were a tough time to find work. “Because I needed a job to pay my bills, I applied for a consulting assignment studying access to markets,” Desai explained. “That’s when my accidental move into development took place.”

He was hired to prepare a report, not about garment imports but about tropical fruit entering the United States, for a subcontractor on an international project. The report caught the eye of a USAID official. And Desai suddenly found himself involved in USAID projects. “USAID at the time was trying to help exporters in Third World countries raise their standards,” Desai said. “The work I was involved in focused on helping governments become more responsive to businesses.

“Small businesses in developing countries are like tightrope walkers with no safety net below them. I had always thought I would work on the business side to fight government to make it easier for small businesses, but this approach seemed much more progressive. Why not work with the governments to help make them better?” he said. Fifteen years later, Desai remains on the governmentimprovement side of the global marketplace, teaming up with agencies that want to streamline business processes and regulations—often by using technology—to help local economic development.

Desai co-founded D.C.-based Dexis Consulting Group in 2001. His 25-person company is notably smaller than most subcontractors assigned to World Bank and USAID overseas projects, but its undertakings are ambitious.

Dexis has been involved in some 150 assignments across 40 countries, many of them so-called “conflict economies.” In Iraq, Dexis helped write the country’s new investment laws. In Afghanistan, the challenge was how to get a bounty of agricultural products into the international market. “We put together investment laws and we set up a method for simplifying business registrations,” Desai said. “We’re working with agricultural institutions to provide better farm extension services and guidance.

“You can move opium on the informal trade channels to the Taliban quickly, but along formal trade channels it can easily take a week to get perishables like strawberries through customs once they reach a border,” he added. Dexis Consulting Group’s other projects have included developing a promotion campaign for wine in Moldova, an online marketplace for fish in Uganda and overseas business promotion tools for Ghana.

Unexpected Career Trajectory

Rodrigo Soares’ entry into the development arena was a bit more serendipitous. He had worked in tourism in Brazil, and then with a travel operator in Oregon, when he decided to pursue graduate study, with a focus on sustainable tourism, at GWSB. Soares graduated with a Master of Tourism Administration in 2004 and then found unexpected opportunities—not all of them linked to tourism—at CDC Development Solutions.

The 32-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro has worked for the entity formerly known as Citizens Development Corps for the past four years. CDC Development Solutions, based in Washington, D.C., was set up in 1990 to create a pool of experienced MBA volunteers. It subsequently added technology, tourism and other executive volunteers—businesssavvy individuals willing to dedicate their time without pay to development projects around the globe.

“There is so much interest in helping emerging countries and using tourism as a tool for development,” Soares said, explaining that he joined CDC Development Solutions to assess a tourism project in Nigeria. He is now among the paid staff at CDC Development Solutions, coordinating volunteer efforts.

The MBA volunteer unit is the best-known of the CDC teams. MBA graduates from the top 52 business schools in the United States apply through their schools to participate in 15-month assignments on high-profile initiatives (GWSB is a participant). A smaller group of highly experienced business leaders volunteer for more intensive three- to sixweek assignments.

CDC Development Solutions recently acquired MBAs Without Borders, a Canadian organization that also connects volunteers with business experience to development projects around the world.

“We’re talking about highly skilled people who are willing to take on a challenge. These are high-concept projects. Some even involve working with government agencies, as we did in Sudan,” Soares said.

IBM volunteers worked on a technology initiative with a nongovernmental organization in Brazil, volunteers from Goldman Sachs and Bank of America were assigned to Africa. McKinsey & Co. consultants worked in India. Other business experts have advised nonprofit organizations in Guatemala, B2B companies in Bulgaria and the Bank of China. Currently MBA volunteers are working in 15 countries.

“The volunteer movement around the world is growing. People are starting to realize that doing something different in your life makes you see the world differently,” Soares said. “It’s very rewarding. It makes you a different person in the end.”

Desai at Dexis Consulting believes it is imperative that MBAs and other business experts become involved in the development field.

“I worked at the World Bank for three years, surrounded by some of the brightest people in the world— but you couldn’t get them to put a timetable of action together,” he said. “They all want to spread democracy and no one disagrees that that would reduce the chances of conflict. But it’s an MBA that teaches you how to be a good planner and how to execute the project.”

Back in her office at the Inter-American Development Bank, de las Casas also talks about the need for more business school graduates to consider work in development.

“Development agencies are filled with people involved in policy issues, economics and international affairs. I believe there are new opportunities for them to be joined by business graduates,” she said. “I am a private-sector person and I bring a different perspective to development.”

She added that the global economic downswing has increased need at the same time that money available for development is waning. That presents challenges for making each dollar count—and she said business best practices are the way to do that.

“Today, especially at GW, a business degree is not necessarily only a direct track to the corporate world,” she said. GW