Why does a director of one the most extensive relief operations in Africa believe the smartest thing he can do for his cause is to spend a year as an MIT Sloan Fellow? Ibrahima Thiam will tell you that agencies like Oxfam (he is regional director for West Africa) have no future without global leadership savvy and a powerful network.
Thiam has spent the last 15 years promoting self-help programs for communities across West Africa. He has been working with citizens to generate economic activities that enable them to improve their living conditions.
“My job is to help people develop the skills and ability to control their own lives, their own futures,” he says.
He believes that entrepreneurship can be a powerful force in conquering both the economic and social challenges in Senegal, where he is based, and in Africa in general.
“I came to MIT for many reasons,” he says. “One of the most important was to find economic innovations and entrepreneurial resources that will support my work. MIT and the MIT Sloan Fellows Program are excellent places to develop the skills and contacts I need. The entrepreneurial spirit here is so strong.”
Many MIT Sloan Fellows use that entrepreneurship culture to revitalize their companies or launch new ventures. If Thiam has the entrepreneurship bug, it's because he has seen its impact in the poorest nations in Africa.
“I have been working to create the emergence of a very strong African network that enables citizens to take charge of the problems facing their communities,” he says. “A savings program that helps poor women to finance opportunities, for example. Another that provides the business and technical knowledge that young Africans need to become successful entrepreneurs. The end result is that they improve their communities with twin forces: high values and economic impact.”
Another extraordinary take-away of the MIT Sloan Fellows Program for Thiam is being immersed in a pool of fascinating, talented leaders from every corner of the world. He is perpetually trying to hone his own leadership skills, and his standards are high.
“First, you must be committed to doing something good, not just for yourself, but for others in need,” he says. ”Next, you have to have astute vision of the potential that lies in all people and all situations you face. A good leader also has to be generous, ready, and willing to share with others. And the most important thing to share is knowledge.”
Without realizing it, perhaps, the ultra modest Thiam is the personification of the leader he most aspires to be. He is eager to plunge into the riches of the MIT Sloan Fellows year, if only to carry the knowledge and experience straight back to his home country.
He will be working with MIT Sloan Fellows director Stephen Sacca to recruit other African leaders under the program's new Global Scholars Fund, which subsidizes tuition for qualified applicants who don't have the resources to attend the program.
And like the leaders he most admires, Ibrahima Thiam is self-sacrificing, spending an entire year away from his wife and children. In fact, his second child was born just after he left for Cambridge. “I look forward to a wonderful reunion,” he says, “with my family and my country.”
That reunion could come soon — his classmates just surprised him by raising $2,000 to send him back to Senegal for a brief vacation to meet his new daughter.