“No matter how frequent a traveler you are, a 14-hour flight does a number on anybody,” says online MBA student Julia Davis, recalling the first leg of her whirlwind immersion in Nairobi, Kenya. “Through the jetlag, we had to force our brains to focus. We had one evening to pull together our final project before presenting the next day.”
Kogod’s online MBA students participate in two three- to four-day immersions in business capitals around the world as part of their program, and this past summer’s immersion focused on private equity and venture capital in the booming economy of Kenya. An introduction to the fast-paced and travel-rich life of a venture capitalist is crucial before entering the field, but as the would-be investors soon found out, it’s not an easy lifestyle to keep up with. “Most of us didn’t get to bed until 3 a.m.,” Davis remembers about her first night in Kenya, “but this offered us insight to the skills and behaviors needed to be successful in the industry.”
Venture capital is an increasingly popular—sometimes essential—funding source for new businesses. By evaluating a venture’s long-term growth potential, investors decide whether or not they want to put up the funds to help a company get started or keep going—all in hopes of a big payoff on their investment. “We planned it so students could take on the role of someone who works for a venture capital firm,” says Jolie Roetter, director of Global Learning Programs and organizer of the online MBA program's immersion trip. “At the end of the program they needed to ask themselves, ‘If given the money to invest, would they?’”
"Most of us didn’t get to bed until 3 a.m., but this offered us insight to the skills and behaviors needed to be successful in the industry."
The students toured coffee and tea farms, processing plants, government agencies, and visited an eco safari lodge to learn more about the coffee, tea, and tourism industries in Kenya in order to make educated recommendations for investment. They met with managers and learned about the reasons behind their business decisions, allowing them to answer some of the most important questions venture capitalists consider when choosing whether or not to invest—is there a big market opportunity? Has there been any positive early traction? What kind of risks exist? What differentiates this product or service?
In order to invest, venture capitalists need the full picture of a company, including an understanding of the government, culture, and economy it exists within. Although Kenya is an attractive location for investing in East Africa because its rapidly expanding economy, its growth is still hindered by a weak government and corruption. Understanding the context of a business is why site visits are essential for students and venture capitalists alike. “The opportunity to exercise concepts in an emerging and dynamic business environment was professionally an experience of a lifetime,” says student Craig Connell.
While the potential for a high return is what makes the venture capital career path so desirable, the path to yielding that return can be like riding a roller coaster. Adapting to cultural norms on top of little sleep and jetlag is a difficult but common occurrence in venture capitalism, and it didn’t take long for the group to have their first lesson—they missed their tour of the giraffe center due to traffic. “In Nairobi, the roads are congested, and it’s not uncommon to be late,” explains Roetter. “In DC, saying, ‘Sorry, there was traffic,’ is never acceptable. You can’t necessarily know everything about how business operates in different countries, but you can learn how to adapt and adjust.”
“No matter how much research you do on a country before you get there, you still will have a huge adjustment,” adds Davis. “The jet lag alone is enough to have you not feel like yourself, but then you are thrown into a new society with new people, food, and customs.”
Roetter continues, “During the immersion you’re working with people you haven’t worked with before; you might not feel so great because the food’s different. There are all kinds of challenges that the students didn’t anticipate, but I think they were glad they had the opportunity to work through them.”
Describing his drop into the deep end of venture capitalism, student Quentin Cheeks says, “Among the constant meetings, cultural visits, late nights, and presentations on three hours of sleep, I still found time to develop great relationships with my classmates and instructors, which I would not change one bit."
The most successful leaders are products of their exposure to new countries, cultures, and business structures, and, despite the late-night presentation developments and sleep deprivation, some students found a thrilling career path that promises new experiences and potentially profitable outcomes. “The program opened my eyes to a whole new area of work,” says student Erin Daga.