Students help South African businesses grow

Forty two students on a Dialogue of Civilizations program in South Africa this summer worked hand-in-hand with local entrepreneurs to deliver sustainable and socially responsible solutions to a variety of challenges facing their businesses.

The five-week program has grown exponentially in popularity since its inception six years ago. Each year, it is led by Dennis Shaughnessy, executive professor in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group and founder of the Social Enterprise Institute, and this year it was assisted by Gordon Adomdza, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation.

“Our students are not just interested in businesses—they’re interested in how businesses can make the world a better place,” said Esther Chou, assistant director of programs for the Social Enterprise Institute. “If they’re going on a study abroad program, they want to do something that leaves an impact.”

The South Africa Dialogue is broken into two modules. First, Northeastern students team up with local students from the Tertiary School in Business Administration, or TSiBA, to study and work on a consulting deliverable for their assigned project. This year, these projects involved working with 22 entrepreneurs from the Cape Town area looking to get their businesses off the ground. The second module is a more practical learning experience, in which students work on an innovation and design consulting project with more established social enterprises. At the end of this experience, four enterprises from the first module are selected to apply for gap funding through the NU-TSiBA MicroVenture Fund.

Adam Fishman, a senior business major, worked on the consulting project for a business called Global Prime Tutoring that was ultimately selected for seed funding. The social business works with students in the Cape Town area to help them improve their matric test scores so that they can go onto tertiary education.

“When we started out, our client was targeting only one group of people, which were students that wanted to improve their scores and have failed in the past,” Fishman said. “Because they were targeting students that tend to be lower income, they weren’t being as financially sustainable as they could be.”

Fishman and his Northeastern and TSiBA peers recommended that Global Prime Tutoring implement sliding scale pricing and expand its offerings to preparation classes that may appeal to a more affluent market. If they could offer a higher price to wealthier students, then it would help bring down costs for lower income students. They also recommended that Global Prime create a nonprofit to form a hybrid business model, which would bring outside funding to finance the cost of one year of matric preparation.

Northeastern alumna Caitlin Ferguson went on the South Africa Dialogue in 2010 and returned this year as a teaching assistant. “It’s a program that I believe in a lot,” said Ferguson, a 2013 graduate with a degree in communication studies. “It’s both interesting and inspiring to watch the students grow and open their minds to the influential potential of social enterprise.”

In addition to working with local entrepreneurs, students pointed to another particularly impactful moment during the Dialogue program when they had the opportunity to sit down for tea with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

“We were given an audience with the Archbishop by way of one of the South African students enrolled at our partner institution, TSiBA,” Shaughnessy explained. “During this time, he offered his unscripted thoughts and inspiring insight informed by his life’s work—in speaking truth to power on behalf of the powerless, and of seeking reconciliation and forgiveness over conflict and revenge.”

Shaughnessy described the meeting as an incredible moment of wisdom and a compelling call to action, which the 42 future business leaders took to heart.