In May of 2010, Ben Cox and four Babson College classmates presented an idea to a group of Boston businessmen. The enthusiastic feasibility of their proposal was evident to those listening, and within minutes of their closing remarks $100,000 was pledged to implement an entrepreneurship resource center in Rwanda.
The story starts with Dennis Hanno, Dean of Babson’s undergraduate school. Embodying the mission of his university—to educate a generation of entrepreneurial leaders to create economic and social value globally, and one of the first institutions to coin entrepreneurship education—he believed that business was best taught in the field, not in the classroom. Shortly after his appointment at Babson in 2007, a Babson professor, who had heard of his long-standing Business Skills Training project in Ghana, West Africa, introduced him to a Rwanda advocate.
Babson’s flagship Management and Consulting Field Experience (MCFE), a student-consulting program with international corporate sponsors and project assignments, sent a team of six undergrads to Rwanda under Hanno’s supervision. Their goal was to formulate a business plan for a local entrepreneur who was interested in launching an English-training institute for managers and businesspeople. The finished plan was used to launch the International Languages and Management Institute in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city.
Why Rwanda? Babson President Leondard Schlesinger saw his dean’s passion for a country “that has built its entire recovery from genocide on the basis of entrepreneurship.”
There are few countries on the face of the planet that are as ready and as eager as Rwanda for the latest tools and methods to train entrepreneurs, whether it’s been the dramatic increase in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index—in one year, Rwanda made a spectacular leap from 143rd to 67th—or in terms of the ease of opening new businesses—Rwanda now ranks 11th in the world. As a result over the last fifteen years, per capita GDP has quadrupled. The entrepreneurial potential for Rwanda going forward is enormous.
Word spread quickly that Hanno was doing work in Rwanda. He was introduced to Boston businessmen with ties to the country, one being Dan Nova, a partner at Highland Capital who knew of Babson’s expertise in the field of entrepreneurship. Nova saw a partnership with Babson as a perfect tie to a country that he had developed his own passion for, a country that is, “one of the most entrepreneurial nations on the planet.” Hanno, finding the sponsor he needed, quickly assembled another MCFE team to investigate how Babson could expand its work in the country. The team was composed of the university’s finest students, five seniors chosen by Hanno after an extensive application process.
After a half semester of mostly student-led research aimed at understanding where and how Babson’s expertise could be used most effectively in Rwanda, Hanno led a transatlantic trip to conduct research on-ground. One of the three students to accept was Cox, who recalled his eagerness to board a plane to Rwanda.
The benefits would be mutual: for the Babson community, this relationship represented an opportunity for students, faculty, and alumni to put practice into action by sharing their expertise with the developing world; for Rwanda, the relationship would enhance the already flourishing entrepreneurial environment and provide extra capacity and knowledge to help lift itself out of poverty.
Their initial five-day trip in March was intensive, aimed at gaining a first-hand understanding of Rwanda’s entrepreneurial environment. They met with the CEO of East Africa’s largest broadcasting station, who explained some of the challenges in growing a business, chief being a lack of skilled labor; they organized a “Rocket Pitch” business plan competition at one of the top secondary schools in the country, where students “were using principles such as overt benefit and target market within hours”; they met with President Paul Kagame’s personal secretary to discuss entrepreneurial development; they analyzed the resources a young group of female entrepreneurs could use in launching and growing their businesses.
Yet it was an impromptu meeting that solidified the purpose of the trip. The Private Sector Federation, the principal business community in Rwanda headed by the influential private sector advocate Robert Bayigamba, heard about Babson’s work in the country and arranged for a sit-down with the team. As former Head of the Privatization Secretariat, Bayigamba coordinated the privatization of twenty state-owned companies, and is now the Managing Director of the country’s largest furniture manufacturer in wood, metal and aluminum. Bayigamba didn’t have the capacity within his limited staff to make the changes that he and the other PSF leaders had envisioned, mainly establishing a stronger capacity to provide sector specific services.
Hanno responded, “I’ve got the staff. It’s called 1900 undergrads and 1500 graduate students just chomping at the bit to contribute to something like this.”
The team left Rwanda with the knowledge that a partnership with the PSF was something they would move forward with. They still needed to develop a plan that worked, and find the funding for such a plan. Cox and his team spent the rest of the semester focusing on how they would implement their vision of establishing an entrepreneurship resource center that would provide consulting, skills training and research collaboration. The center would partner with the PSF and be housed in its headquarters. In May, the finished proposal was presented on-campus to a group of local investors, winning $100,000 of immediate support—a key contributor President Schlesinger himself.
Four months later Bayigamba stood before a crowd of Babson professors, students and local business leaders in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He stood with a commanding presence, speaking slowly and confidently about the future of the Babson-Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center.
“Rwanda, in the aftermath, wants to tell the world ‘never again’. That we are able. Yes, we did a bad thing to humankind, but we can turn around and make special things for our people, for our region, for our continent, and for the world. That’s why there is consistent commitment to change, and we know that we cannot do that without partnership.”
An agreement between Babson and the PSF was signed before a keen crowd, and in October Cox and Chris Smith—a recent graduate of the Global Entrepreneurship Graduate Program—left the brisk Northeast fall for the temperate hills of Rwanda to serve as the Center’s Project Directors. Their Babson fellowship is a two-year commitment, with the Center’s goal to add two staff members each year.
The Babson-Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center
Cox and Smith’s work has revolved around helping Rwandan entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses, focusing largely on Rwandan investment groups—in the words of Cox, “formative business leaders that have pooled their money and are looking for where to spend it”—to identify promising projects and potential investors. A unique Babson skill set allows for in-depth consultation that many of these businessmen have never benefited from; through viability studies and business plan formulation, leadership seminars and individual training. Ultimately, Cox and Smith hope to channel the knowledge that has made Babson a forerunner in entrepreneurship education.
“Working with individual entrepreneurs is something we don’t want to forget about,” Cox reiterates in his appeal to the aspiring entrepreneur as well as larger investment groups. In March a Babson team is coming to run a leadership seminar alongside Cox and Smith, and in the summer the Center plans to launch a leadership boot camp for local high school students.
Meanwhile Hanno advises from afar, especially when difficulties arise. Cox and Smith’s main problems have been facing the hierarchical structure of Rwandan investment groups, unfulfilled pledges due to unworkable ideas, proneness to “work in a silo”, and out-of-reach interest in an economy still working to lower its rates. Lack of human capacity and capital remain the chief concerns in a post-colonial, post-genocide, Rwanda.
Yet the potential is limitless in a country that strives closer toward its goal of becoming an economic model for the developing world. The Babson fellows recognized this potential from the faraway streets of Boston, and turned an ambitious idea into a sustainable project.
Why Rwanda? I have been working in Africa for over ten years, and on my first visit to Rwanda I was struck with the country’s focus on entrepreneurial development. I have not seen another country like it anywhere. Both the government and the private sector recognize the role of entrepreneurship in creating economic and social progress, and Babson College is dedicated to this same ideal: creating great economic and social value everywhere. Entrepreneurship even plays a prominent role in Rwanda’s secondary and university curricula.