Courtesy of Emma Newburger '18

January 26, 2017

Cornell Students Shed Western Perspectives, Gain Business Experience In South Africa

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Prepped with a semester of research material, a consulting team of twelve applied economics and management students prepared to embrace uncertainty as they embarked on a social business trip to South Africa over winter break.

During their time in Johannesburg, the students visited local townships, conducted client interviews and collaborated with a small entrepreneurial organization called Driven Entrepreneurs.

“Impact consulting involves figuring out what businesses need the most and developing solutions that are financially viable, organizationally feasible and most importantly, sustainable,” said Emma Newburger ’18, a participant on the trip and staff writer for The Sun.

The students were connected with Driven through Emzingo, a business design firm based in Spain that focuses on leadership development and social impact work.

“After a semester of marketing research, our team flew to Johannesburg to meet Driven and interview stakeholders and potential sponsors regarding their corporate social investment programs,” Newburger said.

Driven is a for-profit organization that offers programs teaching entrepreneurial skills to community members and high school students in resource poor urban townships, according to Newburger.

“Our work in South Africa included interviewing the Driven team, sponsors and beneficiaries to identify potential improvements, develop a plan for improvement and finally create and present our deliverables and recommendations to the Driven team and their sponsors,” said trip participant Grace Harrison ’18.

Newburger recalled the “unforgettable” experience of writing a case study featuring Driven participant Sam, graduate of the schools’ program.

“Sam told me about his life growing up in extreme poverty, as well as his experience with Driven,” she said. “Driven inspired him to start his own photography business with little funding, to work hard and use the entrepreneurial tools he had acquired to continue his education and build his community.”

The trip was also an opportunity for the students to acquire critical professional expertise, including the ability to conduct interviews in a different cultural setting.

“Talking with students and community members as well as members of the Driven team taught us how to listen and better interact with people from different cultures,” Newburger said. “The type of question you ask, the way you ask it, and the speed at which you speak must be different because you are in a different culture.”

Harrison also thought that meeting students in the Kliptown Youth Program, located in the township of Soweto, was culturally and personally invaluable.

“Interviewing these children was beneficial for our work with Driven,” she said. “It was also incredibly eye-opening and refreshing to meet such young and motivated children who endure far more hardship than a typical Cornell student, but who are so eager to make a positive impact in the world.”

Though at its surface it seemed like a post-apartheid, coastal paradise, Newburger noticed a shockingly apparent racial divide. This became evident when the students first flew into the coastal city of Cape Town, one of South Africa’s three capitals.

“One moment we were in a business meeting in a giant, predominantly white investment bank in the financial district, and a ten-minute drive later we were meeting a small business owner in a black urban township,” Newburger said. “I remember exiting the airport and driving along the freeway, which separated to one side the sprawl of underdeveloped informal housing with no sanitation, electricity or clean water, and to the other side a fancy gated community.”

Harrison praised the program for giving her valuable insight as a business major.

“It gave us an opportunity to learn more about the South African business culture while allowing us to experience what an interviewer looks for in an interviewee,” she said.

The trip was also a positive bonding experience for all participants — between students and South Africans, as well as between students and professors.

“Working to make many deliverables for Driven in a short amount of time required us to rely on one another and appreciate all the qualities and expertise that each of us brought to the table,” Harrison said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with Cornell professors outside of the classroom.

The overall optimism of the township residents, apparent despite unfortunate living conditions, was impactful, the students said.

“What really struck me as I entered the townships were the poor conditions that so many South Africans endure and their ability to make the most of their situations and their positive outlook on life despite their circumstances,” Harrison said.

The trip lent a fresh perspective on the role of Western society’s desire to aid developing countries in the entrepreneurial world.

“I think that there is often a misguided notion that Westerners can come in to a less developed area of the world and teach people or save the day with superior resources and experience,” Newburger said. “The reality is that as Cornellians, we are a product of western education and perspectives, and while we were conducting business and interviews in South Africa we had to take that into account and listen carefully and learn from others.”

Overall, the trip proved to be academically enriching, and a research experience the students said they would repeat.

“I would love to return to South Africa, especially to conduct business,” Newburger said. “I have met some extremely resilient and impressive people there, and I have made important relationships I’d like to keep forever.”