Action and compromise: What I’ve learned from President Obama’s town hall at ESMT

Shan Qiao

Along with several other ESMT Berlin students, Shan Qiao attended the Obama Foundation Town Hall Europe with President Obama at ESMT on April 6. In this blog post, she shares her thoughts and experiences.

When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama visited Berlin in 2008 for the first time and gave a speech in front of the Victory Column, I was just over 20 years old. I remember watching that speech live on TV. I was probably as enthusiastic as the tens of thousands of people that were there cheering and shouting the famous campaign slogan “Yes, we can!”

I almost felt like I did 11 years ago when President Obama walked onto the stage at my home university ESMT Berlin on Saturday. I was sitting in the front row, having the privilege to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event in person. The crowd in the lecture hall was cheering. Everyone was excited and looking forward to the things to come.

Back in 2008, people imagined that once Obama had been elected the world would somehow dramatically change for the better – overnight. The culmination of these high hopes was the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, shortly after he started his first term.

President Barack Obama at ESMT Berlin

In hindsight, it is obvious that no one could live up to such high expectations. And President Obama has since been criticized for not delivering on all of his campaign promises. Despite the excitement ringing out throughout the halls of ESMT, I think we all were more sober than the crowd of 2008.

The importance of compromise

Radical changes just don’t happen overnight – or even within four or eight years for that matter. At least not the kind of changes we would like to see. In his town hall speech at ESMT, President Obama reminded us that “when you start trying to radically change things quickly, the track record has not been great.”

Indeed, I think we should be grateful that our societies are organized in a way that people with different opinions are able to express them and be heard.

“You have to recognize that the way we structure democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you,” the President said. “That by definition means you’re not going to get 100 percent of what you want.”

Pointing to examples like his passing of the Affordable Care Act and the Paris Climate Agreement, President Obama stressed the importance of compromise in making progress within a democracy among citizens who don’t agree with a given policy.

Full lecture hall at President Barack Obama's town hall event at ESMT Berlin

I think the value of compromise is often underestimated. Of course, it means that you, or the representatives you elected will not reach each and every goal on their agenda. But it also means that no one can impose their ideas, which you might not agree with, entirely on you.

Taking action

Being open to compromise, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be politically active and complacent about the future you desire. Quite the contrary – the President urged us young people to stand up and fight on behalf of our generation.

“You would not let your grandfather or grandmother decide what clothes you wear or what music you listen to,” he said. “So why would you let them decide the world you’re going to live in and the politics that you’re going to be subjected to.”

I was particularly impressed that President Obama explicitly discussed the “Fridays for Future” movement – these thousands of people protesting all across Europe, calling for ambitious action on climate change. Some German politicians have ridiculed the movement, saying that such matters are for professionals to sort out, not for children running in the streets.

“A lot of those people can’t vote, they’re too young to vote yet,” the President said. “But they know what’s going on and they’re making change. Those habits and that sense of power that they’re developing now is going to carry over for the rest of their lives.”

People raising their hands at President Barack Obama's town hall event at ESMT Berlin

It felt good to hear the President is taking the concerns of the young generation very seriously and actually trusts and encourages us to take matters into our own hands. That is – unfortunately – something you rarely hear from politicians these days.

I would like to thank President Obama for sharing his inspirational thoughts. I hope the other people attending the event and those watching via the internet are as inspired as I am.

Photo credits: The Obama Foundation

Interview with MBA Alumna Samantha Barlow

We interviewed Samantha Barlow, MBA alumna 2018, on her experience of the ESMT MBA program.

What motivated you to do an MBA?

I sought an MBA to acquire the hard skills that would allow me to grow as an effective entrepreneur. Specifically, my aim was to increase my literacy in financial accounting and be able to transmit this knowledge into operational strategy in order to effectively launch my own company. My traditional employment prior to the MBA was as a program manager in the nonprofit sector, but I had also been on the founding team of two international social enterprises and wanted to pivot my career trajectory in that direction. The gaps in my knowledge and skills were immediately apparent to me, and I knew I needed to learn the language of business and increase my financial literacy to be successful.

I also wanted to engage with a global community, exchanging diverse ideas and experiences. I often think about how my movement through the world as a white, American woman affects my leadership practices. I am especially cognizant of these practices in the context of my business ventures in Ghana, West Africa, where my fiancée and I currently reside. I was motivated to do not just an MBA, but an international MBA so I could be even more thoughtful about working in different cultural contexts.

One year later, what would you say surprised you most about the program?

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the power of the ESMT network. When you read the brochure and the statistics about how many different countries are represented, they cannot do justice to the real thing. The distinct life experiences of my classmates and idea-sharing that took place during group work throughout the year challenged me. Months after graduation, people still post helpful job links and funny photos in the class WhatsApp group every day. The way alumni would respond to networking emails, the way professors would take time outside class to answer my questions, the way the administrators went out of their way to invite me to interesting events or connect me with relevant professionals – it all astounded me.

If you had to name one highlight of the year, what would it be?

The Munich company visits in May 2018 doubled as a thought-provoking glimpse at two companies and an enjoyable social experience with my classmates.

Thirty of us crowded onto the 7:00 a.m. Easyjet flight to Munich one Friday morning, changed into suits in the airport bathroom, and marched off to Holidu and Amazon. The companies – one a local startup and one a multinational tech giant – contrasted interestingly and we all discussed cultural fit and personal preferences on the bus ride to the hotel. We spent the rest of the weekend drinking beer with alumni, taking the free walking tour, and laughing together over meals of Schweinshaxe and Käsespätzle.

What motivated you to become a Responsible Leaders Fellow? What will you be doing?

The Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) is an amazing springboard to the next step in my professional career. I am seeking a career in social enterprise and have personal ties to West Africa, so the ability to pursue a six-month opportunity at Impact Hub Accra, the premier entrepreneurial empowerment agency in Ghana, is a dream come true.

RLF provides a great foot in the door, since it’s easier to join an organization as a pro bono consultant, thanks to ESMT’s generous Circle of Friends.  Now that I’m here, Impact Hub Accra is opening up doors for me and creating numerous networking opportunities.

I am able to flex my new MBA muscles as a financial and strategy consultant for the Hub’s health innovation program, taking on a variety of tasks I would otherwise be unable to as a traditional employee. My diverse fellowship consists of program and business development support, impact evaluation, and creating a separate budgeting system and long-term financial strategy for the health program.

What advice would you give to new students?

Take advantage of the opportunities! In the beginning you may feel overwhelmed adjusting to a new country and tackling the considerable amount of homework. Focus on learning, but do not worry too much about grades, and dive into the extracurriculars. Join clubs, attend events, stay out late, take up leadership roles, and be tired. You get as much as you put into the MBA.

Anything else you would like to share?

To new students – leave a legacy. You have one year, and whether you want to address sexism in the corporate world, make ESMT greener, strengthen the alumni network, increase diversity, or start a new club, think about how you want to be remembered and act on it.

Interview with MBA Alumna Marie Masson

We interviewed Marie Masson, MBA alumna 2018, on her experience of the ESMT MBA program.

With your UN/NGO background, what motivated you to do an MBA? 

First, the business and management skills the MBA teaches are useful whether you are working for a hedge fund or an NGO. Every organization has a mission, a strategy, a budget and employees to be managed, and today, I think only a business degree formally teaches this. An MBA gives you the opportunity to reflect on your leadership style, learn from other student’s experiences, and develop business skills to have a helicopter view of organizations.

Second, by pursing business classes during my Bachelor degree in Political Science, I noticed there was often a line drawn between business and politics, which I found difficult to understand because both are so intertwined. By doing an MBA, I aspired to develop a hybrid profile to better understand the relationship between the public and the private sector. I believe that in an increasingly interconnected world, companies will need more hybrid profiles to play on the international stage and create effective partnerships. I therefore would encourage more people to pursue studies in a wide range of complementary fields.

One year later, what would you say surprised you most about the program?

I always pictured an MBA class working in a competitive environment. Instead, study groups helped each other out, finance students helped soft skill students and vice versa (my friend Faraz saved me in all technical classes), students shared job postings and their networks, and during many group presentations I heard: “We conducted our analysis this way but actually the previous group did it really nicely as well!”. This supportive environment was an incredible surprise, and might be very ESMT specific due to the diversity of profiles.

If you had to name one highlight of the year, what would it be?

There were many fun moments, but my highlight a moment of reflection. At the end of Module 1, our classmate Carlos took a picture of all of us in our Module 1 seating plan. It was a strange moment when all of us realized how fast the first few weeks had passed and how the rest of the year would fly. After this picture, all of us already spoke about missing each other 10 months down the road when the MBA would end.

What are your professional plans? How will the MBA degree help you to reach your goals?

I am starting a position in Public Affairs at Lilium, a flying taxi startup in Munich. If someone had told me I would be working for such an incredibly exciting project after my MBA, I would never have believed them!

The MBA taught me how to work with very diverse profiles and in a fast-paced environment -two things which will be vital in my new position. In addition, I hope that the business knowledge I have gained will enlarge my political vision to better understand the core business and work closer with my technical colleagues.

What advice would you give members of the Class of 2019, who started the program in January?

First, say YES! Say yes to as many events or activities organized by the school  and your classmates. In a few years, you will have forgotten how sleep deprived you were, and you will only remember how much fun you had with the most diverse group you will ever be in.

Second, network, network and network from Day 1.

Third, be humble and learn from others.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I am grateful for the faculty and staff at ESMT who make everything possible with their hard work, positive attitude and eagerness to make any student initiative possible. All of us owe a large part of our success to the outstanding efforts of the ESMT Berlin school.

 

Interview with MBA alumnus Kalpesh Ahire

We caught up with Kalpesh Ahire, MBA 2018 alumnus, who shared his ESMT MBA story.

What motivated you to do an MBA?

Prior to the MBA, I had been working as a Business Analyst/Technology Consultant with Accenture. My undergraduate degree is in Engineering, specializing in Information Technology. This made my work quite challenging. While my technical skills were quite strong, on the business side, I had to learn on the job or from my peers. However, as time passed I realized that a structured way of learning would be the most efficient way to prepare for any upcoming business challenge. My approach has always been to refer to the basics – taking what I have learned academically and then building on this to take on practical issues. Naturally, an MBA was the obvious choice. I was always fascinated with the German industry and business landscape and since I had also worked in Germany before, I decided to move to Germany. I chose ESMT Berlin due to a number of factors and not limited to the internationality, age of the school, and the focus on innovation and technology, along with personal development.

One year later, what would you say surprised you most about the program?

The program itself and the cohort. Often times, one does not experience exactly what one has signed up for. I still remember my initial discussion with the admissions team where I was made aware of what to expect at ESMT, such as the international cohort, very practical approach to studies, innovation-based topics, and the focus on people and leadership development etc. Everything turned out to be exactly the way it was portrayed, which is quite unique.

Secondly, the cohort. My class was amazing. We were close-knit and had each other’s backs, with no competition, and everyone bringing out the best in each other. At many points during the MBA, I attended MBA events where I met candidates from other business schools and it was quite evident that the ESMT candidates stood out as a team.

 

If you had to name one highlight of the year, what would it be?

This is probably the most difficult question. This year has been full of highlights and extraordinary experiences, be it our very first week going outdoors for team building exercises or the class coming together to help our MBAT team, or the various cultural events organized by our very diverse class, or the obvious – different classes and professors.

However, if I must choose one, I would choose something personal. I am an aviation geek and have been around jets courtesy of my father’s job. Also, I have always been fascinated by technology and machine learning. An important and in fact differentiating aspect of the ESMT MBA is the consulting project, where we directly apply our knowledge to real time situations in a company. I had the opportunity to work with Lufthansa for my consulting project. The project dealt with how Lufthansa can implement conversational commerce and improve services, a perfect amalgamation of two of my interests, aviation and technology with strategy. I do not think I could have had the opportunity to have this experience elsewhere. On a side note, for one of our meetings in Zurich I was able to fly in a Fokker-100 aircraft, one of the last few left in service. I could finally check it off my long list of aircraft models I always wanted to fly!

I have heard that you have be vigilant in learning German. Why was this so important to you?

 I come from India, the land of many languages. I grew up in a town with almost every culture and language from my country. It was therefore natural to know a few words from different languages. It not only helped understand the people around but also helped to bond with them. This important learning came in handy when I moved to Germany. As mentioned earlier, I have worked in Germany before, which is when I actually started learning the language. Though my working language was English, learning German helped me a lot as my job involved talking to various stakeholders. Understanding and learning a language does not have the sole purpose of understanding a conversation. It serves a bigger purpose of knowing the people and the culture. I had already decided to work in Germany after my MBA and being part of the culture would help me in my stay. As a result, when I decided to take up the MBA, I moved to Berlin 3 months early to continue learning the language.

What are your professional plans?

I come from the IT industry specifically in the Business Analysis space and would like to leverage my knowledge of the industry and technology. Solutioning comes naturally to me; therefore, I am keen on developing my career into strategy consulting with an IT background. However, I am open for any challenge, as I believe the MBA has taught me well about how to transfer my skills and utilize them wherever I go. Also, as mentioned before, the German business landscape is quite fascinating to me, I would like to stay here in Germany.

What advice would you give members of the Class of 2019?

Live and enjoy every moment of this incredible journey, it ends very soon. Be there for each other as it is not as enjoyable if pursued alone. While learning in the classroom is important, it is equally important to meet people, make friends, and build a network. 

ESMT organizes many events, be an active part of them. Berlin has a lot to offer in this regard, go to many of those events. Being a one-year program, it gets quite hectic, especially in the beginning of the year, but make an effort to go out and network, be part of extracurricular activities, it is WORTH it! ESMT listens to students and supports student initiatives, so be vocal and organize events/activities that would add value to you and your class. They supported many initiatives from our class. Above all, the ESMT MBA offers a unique opportunity of getting to know many cultures and people at a single place – take full advantage of it. Cultural exchange will make you prepared for everything that is coming after the program.

Anything else you would like to share?

I still cannot comprehend that this year has ended. However, there are few things which I will always remember and would want everyone to know. We were a class of 66 students and one exchange student in the first half of the program representing 34 nationalities.

Many “firsts” happened during our year at ESMT, be it new clubs such as the Technology Club. The first ever ESMT Hackathon took place, where people from business and technology fields came together. Many cultural exchanges took place, such as a Brazilian barbeque and Italian dinner. We organized an auction to support our athletic MBAT team, who went on to win many international tournaments. Some of my classmates went to Australia to participate in the Global Business Challenge and secured second place and funding to start a company. Last but not the least, we had some of the most qualified, multi-talented, and coolest professors, some who could tango for example, or can be found on Spotify, to name a few. 

What I learned about bringing clean energy to rural Uganda

Over the last few weeks, I have been working with Disability Art Project Uganda (DAPU), a community-based organization (CBO) based in Bugadde, rural Uganda.  DAPU was recently put in the spotlight by ENVenture for financing clean energy products (lighting and cooking) and water filters to provide clean water to poor communities in rural Uganda.  Since I started working with DAPU, I have done initial market research to figure out the state of affairs of rural and suburban customers. What follows summarizes my findings to date:

Distribution and Logistics

Distribution and logistics networks are fragmented, thus organizations need to locate their distribution points centrally and ensure that customer demand is aggregated. The distribution locations should be conspicuous enough for customers to easily notice and visit to make their purchases. It’s also important that the locations should be easily accessible by public transport (buses and motorcycles) in-order-to reduce inventory transport costs. For DAPU, an effort is already being put into identifying suitable locations in Bugadde that meet the above criteria.

Frequency of Income

Income streams of rural and suburban customers are sporadic and unpredictable. This means that for organizations to sell their products to the customers in these areas, they need to carefully map earning patterns for each consumer segment. Although this is a challenge, it is possible to understand when each consumer receives income. For example, a sugar farmer in Bugadde will sell sugarcane around December and will be liquid during this period. On the other hand, a milk vendor in Jinja will have enough income to purchase products at the weekends throughout the year.

Income levels

In addition to sporadic incomes, average daily income is low (between USD 0.81 and USD 2.70) for the people I interviewed. This presents a challenge for organizations serving these low-income segments because their ability to pay is low; even with financing, the chances of default are still high. Organizations serving such customers should identify specific customer product fit through a credit assessment by in-person interviews, referees, and by designing a manageable payment plan for the customer. There is no guarantee of repayment because a small “shock” such as a health emergency could hinder future repayments by customers. However, creating customer trust and reminders would be a good way to reduce repayment defaults. Accurate and realistic pricing mechanisms should also be put in place to encourage repayments. At DAPU, we will implement these techniques in this first quarter of 2019 and will continue to refine the methods over time.

Availability of Information

Most rural customers still use dirty and expensive energy sources such as kerosene lamps for lighting and inefficient cooking stoves for cooking. During our interviews, most respondents claimed they were not aware of cheaper, cleaner energy alternatives. From this, it would be safe to recommend that organizations that provide clean energy services to rural consumers should adopt marketing strategies that provide high product visibility and clearly defines value to end consumers. For most rural consumers, the value is created through economic benefits (savings) and physiological benefits (healthier alternatives). DAPU hopes to provide value to its customers and attract them to use DAPU products and services.

On top of the four major findings highlighted above, I should note that the consumer population is dispersed over a wide geographical area. Reaching every consumer is a tremendous challenge. I highly recommend that organizations should work with last-mile entrepreneurs to boost their visibility and sales volumes in order to scale. The business that I believe can succeed in this type of rural market would be one with high volumes and low margins.

This article is a first of a series of articles I will share about my 5-months experience in Bugadde, supporting DAPU and another CBO to refine their business model and scale up their operations. I hope you enjoyed the read. If you have other resources about Uganda rural consumers, feel free to share with me.