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Category: Global Perspective

Kofi Annan, SF ’72: The Conscience of Humanity

It’s difficult to imagine that Kofi Annan, SFMBA ’72, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, once suffered from “imposter syndrome,” but in 1971, as a new MIT Sloan Fellow, he was plagued with doubt. It was a luminous fall day, and as he walked along the Charles River, he wondered whether he really fit into the audacious group of global leaders who were his classmates.

Annan says that suddenly, looking out across the sailboats to Boston, the answer came to him: “Follow your inner compass…know who you are, what you stand for, where you want to go, and why you want to get there.” His anxieties, he remembers, immediately began to fade. In fact, as a result of that walk by the river, Annan says he took away “the intellectual confidence to help me locate my bearings in new situations, to view any challenge as an opportunity for renewal and growth, and to be comfortable in seeking the help of colleagues, but not fearing to do things my way.”

Annan, who passed away last month at the age of 80, took those tools and built a global infrastructure dedicated to peace during his years at the United Nations and later, with the Kofi Annan Foundation. Born in Ghana, he joined the UN system in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva. He served at posts in Ethiopia, Egypt, and in the former Yugoslavia, and headed the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. There he ushered in unprecedented growth in the UN’s global presence and oversaw the response to the Rwandan genocide. Annan rose to Secretary-General of the UN in 1997.

An international organization is an experiment

As Secretary-General, Annan undertook reform of the United Nations, advocated for human rights, the rule of law, economic development, and mobilized global action to fight AIDS. He also fought vehemently with the U.S. government to forestall the war in Iraq in 2003, later confiding to Time magazine that his inability to prevent that invasion was “his darkest moment.”

In an extensive eulogy in Forbes, Georg Kell, founder and former Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact, said Annan was the “conscience of humanity, endowed with the ability to inspire millions of people across cultures, religions, and nations to support the good causes of the United Nations—peace, human rights, and sustainable development…. As last great reformer of the United Nations, he managed to modernize its bureaucracy in critical areas such as women empowerment and global health.”

MIT and the United Nations, Annan once said, have more in common than might be at first obvious. “An international organization,” he said, “is an experiment…an experiment in human cooperation on a planetary scale. International organizations must be closely tuned to their environments, quickly correct their mistakes, build cumulatively on their achievements, and continually generate new modalities as previous ways of doing things become outdated. As a Sloan Fellow, I learned management skills that I could draw on in refashioning the United Nations for the new century.”

Read more about Kofi Annan in MIT News.

Watch Kofi Annan’s keynote address at MIT Sloan in October 2002.

Digital solutions for Africa: The 2018 MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference convenes at the MIT Media Lab April 7

Africa. In many ways it has a long way to travel to compete as a peer in the contemporary global marketplace. But from another perspective, the population is highly motivated to find solutions to crippling problems and incentivized to reinvent those systems that are barriers to progress. The MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference is an annual touchstone for just how far Africa has come and where it goes next.

Ismail Ahmed, WorldRemit founder & CEO, one of the keynote speakers at the 2018
MIT Africa Innovate Conference.

“Digitization for Inclusive Growth” is the theme of the 2018 conference, which is organized by the MIT Africa Business Club and takes place at the MIT Media Lab on April 7. Workshops and panels will evaluate the lessons of the last decade of technological advancement and explore how to leverage digitization to ensure that Africa’s progress is as inclusive as possible.

The conference will feature a Solveathon led by the MIT Solve Center. Teams of entrepreneurs will develop and pitch solutions related to coastal communities, healthcare, education, and the future of work. In addition, panels will delve into the most intractable challenges that countries on the African continent still face—challenges that require strategic innovation on a grand scale. Those panels will include investigations into:

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MIT and China partner to plot the growth of future cities

Where is the city going? What is the future of “urban?” How can we increase quality of life, solve transportation and energy issues, and provide affordable housing for millions of forthcoming city dwellers? MIT and China are partnering to find answers with the new Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which will be headquartered in a new space called the MIT China Future City Lab.

MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing have established this revolutionary collaboration to support research and startup teams that will develop leading-edge ideas that address the challenges presented by China’s rapidly growing cities. As a result, the partners hope to develop new models for urban living and infrastructure that address issues of urban resilience, health, housing, environmental sustainability, responsive urban management, and the development of smart cities.

The FCIC will draw upon MIT research to identify innovative concepts and technologies that can be implemented in China. The program’s founder and faculty director Siqi Zheng is the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate. She is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University.

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More than one way to be multinational

Global expansion is a core goal of many major corporations, but some are beginning to rewrite the multinational rules of the road. With 300 locations around the world, General Electric (GE) is one such pathfinder, recently rethinking which functions should be regionalized and which should remain local.

Global Operations Executive Leader, Oleg Bodiul, SF ’13 took on the vast transformation role as part of a GE leadership team tasked with creating a global shared-services organization that would centralize many of the company’s key functions, including accounting, finance, and commercial operations.

Among the top 100 firms in the world, GE is a digital-industrial player providing software-defined machines and solutions for markets ranging from aviation, power generation, and oil and gas to renewables, healthcare, and financial services. “Historically, functions like accounting and order management were performed in hundreds of locations around the globe. The objective was to centralize, where possible, into a few locations to leverage scale and deliver better outcomes for our customers, employees, and shareholders.”

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Smart phones are outwitting poverty

Alexander Graham Bell would be astonished at the power of today’s smart phones. Yes, the app that makes it possible to find a Starbucks along an unfamiliar highway can feel like a miracle, but the true revolutionary power of the telephone is felt most in developing countries. In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone has, to some extent, stabilized the economy for many citizens and transformed quality of life.

Nearly all Kenyan households own at least one mobile phone—not state-of-the-art smart phones, but phones “smart” enough to accommodate at least one M-Pesa account. Available to any customer of Safaricom, Kenya’s mobile network leader, M-Pesa is a money transfer service that allows a daughter at one corner of the country to send money safely and securely to her mother in a village seven hours away. Previously, she would have entrusted an envelope of cash to a bus driver heading to her mother’s village (at considerable risk) or relied on a money transfer that took days—and a daunting amount of red tape—to process.

Of course, to withdraw funds through an M-Pesa account you must have access to an agent who can disperse the cash. Happily, in response to the popularity of M-Pesa, the network across Kenya has mushroomed to 150,000 agents. Working with Innovations for Poverty Action, Associate Professor of Applied Economics Tavneet Suri, a native Kenyan, and her colleague William Jack have been tracking incomes in regions where new agents have opened for business. They compared the financial health of those regions with that of regions where agents are not as accessible.

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African Governments Must Inspire New Enterprise

Local governments across Africa should make every effort to promote entrepreneurship, says Flavian Marwa, SF ’10, but they shouldn’t enter the risky business of picking and backing winners. Founder of Sebelda Global Development Advisors and a consultant for the World Bank Group’s Africa region, Marwa is responsible for developing sustainable models of technology-based startup incubators with a focus on Africa.

“When governments provide seed money,” he says, “new enterprises tend to rely on it rather than learn to compete in the real marketplace. They lose their incentive to make it work when they know they can get capital infusions from the government.” Marwa believes that governments can best promote a healthy enterprise culture by partnering with industry to create mentorship programs. “Governments need to facilitate connections between young entrepreneurs and seasoned business leaders who can help them anticipate and navigate thorny patches,” he says.

Marwa also stresses the importance of promoting a healthy lending climate. He notes that government investment is critical, but not straight-out subsidies. “It costs investors a relatively steep sum of money to write a loan, and that discourages them from making the small-scale loans that would be appropriate to help a startup.” He believes that governments can offset loan origination costs with incentive programs—and similarly provide economic perks in the form of tax breaks or subsidies to motivate established businesses to invest in new enterprises.

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New Zealand marries indigenous wisdom and worldliness for enterprise success

How does an isolated nation like New Zealand become a major player in the international marketplace?  The short answer is that they know how to weave. Lynne Dovey, SF ’02, who has spent the last four decades working for the New Zealand government in a range of policy roles, notes that the nation’s remoteness has inspired Kiwi entrepreneurs to embrace new ideas from around the world through trade relationships, scientific collaborations, and commercial partnerships.

But the country has a prodigious store of indigenous wisdom, Dovey says, and that knowledge is a vital part of the mix. Dovey says that the New Zealand government promotes a culture of entrepreneurship that leverages proprietary knowledge in areas that have become the nation’s province like biosecurity, healthcare, earthquake science, and renewable energy. Into that approach it integrates a healthy dose of ancient, homegrown Māori wisdom, the body of knowledge first brought to New Zealand by the Polynesian ancestors of present-day Māori. Woven together, these components have made for a thriving enterprise climate.

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The world is watching—and emulating—this Latin American innovation hub

“Work hard and keep your head down—that’s Chile’s unofficial motto,” says Rocio Fonseca, SF ’14, executive director of Start-Up Chile. “The goal of the average Chilean is to get a job working for a corporation.” Fonseca adds that small and medium-sized businesses in Chile are not innovation driven. “They tend to err on the side of playing it safe—and that complacency curbs growth and evolution. Chile is not an entrepreneurial culture.”

In 2010, the Chilean government launched the ambitious enterprise accelerator Start-Up Chile to help it turn that national attitude around. The program helps early-stage, high-potential entrepreneurs bootstrap their startups using Chile as a platform to go global. With an annual portfolio of 200-250 companies, Start-Up Chile has fast become the best business accelerator program in Latin America and is counted among the top five worldwide. It’s also the cornerstone of Chile’s national economic development strategy.

Start-Up Chile is actually a collection of three programs: a pre-acceleration program for early-stage enterprises, a seed program for startups with a functioning product and early validation, and a follow-on fund for top performing startups looking to scale up in Latin American and globally. With robust training programs, workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, and a busy calendar of networking events, Fonseca fosters a fertile environment that connects Chilean innovators with early-stage, high potential entrepreneurs around the world.

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Social responsibility must be a team effort

You’re a founder of a new enterprise and one of your top priorities is social and environmental responsibility. Your management team, however, can’t think of anything but the balance sheet.  By year’s end, your bottom line is healthy, but you don’t feel your new enterprise has contributed much to society.

It’s a common dilemma that comes down to a core disconnect that many founders don’t think to look for when pulling together their C-suites. But compatibility surrounding worldview, ethical issues, and dedication to social responsibility can be as important to the success of a business as professional qualifications.

Gustavo Mamão, SF ’11, founder of the Brazilian startup Flourish, which guides entrepreneurs in the creation of mission-driven organizations, has always focused on businesses that demonstrate how a company dedicated to a better world can also be profitable. But it’s an ethic, he says, that the whole management team must get behind. “The extent to which a business embraces sustainability and environmental goals is something that should be decided among founders and investors in the earliest days of the enterprise.”

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Robert McKersie merges management theory and activism

What does advanced management theory have to do with social and economic justice? Everything, according to MIT Sloan Professor of Management Emeritus Robert B. McKersie. In his latest book, A Decisive Decade: An Insider’s View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, McKersie reveals how his convictions and his scholarship merged on the front lines of historic events in the civil rights movement—strategy sessions, marches, boycotts, and negotiations.

Robert McKersieMcKersie is best known for his pioneering work in industrial relations. His groundbreaking publications include A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations (with coauthor Richard E. Walton) and The Transformation of American Industrial Relations, honored with the George R. Terry Award by the Academy of Management as the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of management knowledge in 1986. McKersie’s Strategic Negotiations: A Theory of Change in Labor-Management Relations (with Walton and Joel E. Cutcher-Gershenfeld) has been used effectively in the Northern Ireland peace process as well as in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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