Benjamin Boutboul, MBA ’20
Benjamin Boutboul, MBA ’20, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, to share his experience as a leader of MIT-Africa Takes On COVID-19, a large global hackathon that was organized in less than two weeks as the pandemic forced MIT to transition to remote learning and cancel all in-person events.
More info on Africa Takes on COVID-19 Challenge:
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So, what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Hi, I am your host, Christopher Reichert, and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Benjamin Boutboul, a freshly minted 2020 graduate of Sloan's MBA program. Prior to Sloan, Benjamin worked at Fenix International, an off-grid solar company headquartered in Kampala, Uganda. Benjamin also worked at Capital Dynamics, a renewable energy fund investing in onshore wind and solar PV projects in Europe. Benjamin started his career at Société Générale in Energy Project Finance. So before we get to your Sloan MBA, let's talk about the incredible experience you just had with Africa Takes on COVID-19 Challenge. Before I hand it off to you, let me just give some context for our listeners.
You had been organizing the Africa Innovate Conference that had to be canceled due to the COVID-19. Classes were canceled, you were confined to probably dorms or left campus entirely, and we were all pushed to stay home. And you had just recently participated in the MIT COVID-19 Challenge: Beat The Pandemic, a large virtual hackathon. Then, David Capodilupo, Assistant Dean for the MIT Sloan Global program, Stuart Krusell, Senior Director at the Global Programs, and Bill Carter, who was an award-winning filmmaker, author, teacher and MIT consultant, reached out. So take it from there. What happened? Tell us the story.
Benjamin Boutboul: Sure. I can start with the overall conference that I was organizing. I am very passionate about Africa. It is one of the reasons why I came to MIT in the first place. I was already working in the energy sector, more on the finance side, but I really wanted to get more operational hands-on experience and specifically in Africa. And so after getting into MIT, I worked for, as you mentioned, an off-grid solar company in Ivory Coast and it was a six-month pre-MBA internship. It was my first time living and working in Africa and really loved it and haven't looked back since.
Throughout my time at MIT, I worked on a number of initiatives related to the continent culminating in my second year with being co-chair of the Africa Innovate Conference, which is the largest and most visible Africa event organized at MIT. It was supposed to be the 10th edition and we spent almost nearly a year working on it. And then, as you mentioned, on a day in March we all received an email saying that classes were moving online and that any in-person event on campus would be canceled, for now obvious reasons. And so, essentially, the entire work that I had done with the 15-person leadership team had gone away and I was still keen to make something out of this experience and repurpose some of the work that we had done over the year.
And so a few weeks after the confinement started, I participated in Beat the Pandemic, which was a large virtual hackathon organized by some of our classmates here at MIT. The purpose was to, over a 48-hour sprint, design solutions to some of the problems that we were now all facing around the world. My experience was truly fantastic. I was part of a team with people in Japan, in Sydney, in Manila, and four people in the U.S., and we all came in virtually not knowing each other and worked around the clock to design a solution. The solution that I ended up working on was targeted towards emerging markets, but a lot of the solutions in Beat the Pandemic were more targeted towards developed markets and the U.S. in particular.
Christopher Reichert: So, tell me, you're speaking to us from Paris and it's the last day of June. So now we've had basically three-and-a-half months of, I guess, strangeness. I guess there's no other way to put it, right?
Benjamin Boutboul: Indeed.
Christopher Reichert: And you were saying that...I just want to come back to Africa in a moment, but I think that what I found interesting as we were talking earlier was the recovery cycle in France, and maybe you could say Europe in general, has been pretty successful and more successful than other nations. So New Zealand is a great case of getting it down, Australia as well. U.S. not so much, we're seeing a spike. So tell me, what's life like right at the moment in France, and how long have you been back in Europe?
Benjamin Boutboul: I've been back for 10 days and things have been weirdly normal, I'd say, in terms of things are really reopening. People are still being careful. You still have to wear masks in public transport and you need to in certain stores, but I'd say things really are starting to get back to a sort of new normal in terms of, the weather's nice, so people are at restaurants outside, like some bars are starting to reopen. So, yes, things are starting to get normal. At the same time, I am a little afraid that we are getting a bit complacent and that we may end up seeing more spikes in the coming weeks. But I'd say seeing that situation here, in Europe, relative to other places including where I was just before this in the U.S., things do seem to be much more under control here.
Christopher Reichert: And so, people are trepidatious going out? We can see that here in the U.S. as well, not that we're having great results with that. So tell me about your interest in Africa. Do you have an African connection?
Benjamin Boutboul: I do. I have origins from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. My grandparents are from there and then emigrated to France, but I'd say my interest was more twofold. One, from a personal basis, I've always enjoyed traveling and discovering new cultures and countries. My mom used to work for Air France and when we were growing up we traveled quite a bit. And so I learned to discover a new culture and be open to the world from a very young age. Then more from a professional basis, I was working in renewable energy and just before Sloan, I was working specifically in developed markets renewable energy.
And I was a bit frustrated because even though I was working in an interesting sector, a lot of the groundbreaking work had already been done. So we were essentially just replicating a template that had already been done and essentially I realized that between investing in a solar farm in France and a wind farm in the UK, it was basically the same type of problem in the same way of thinking. Whereas in emerging markets and in Africa in particular, everything needed to be done from the beginning, and so you really were part of the team building the new solution from the ground up.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. I can see a lot of commonalities between that and the hackathon that you participated in originally. I read recently that the response to this pandemic, experts have been saying, requires a whole of nation response and not just from government, not just from the private sector, but really almost a 360 degree, whole of nation approach to it. And I was fascinated to read the article in the MIT News about the challenge that you participated in, because it seems like, in a very rapid period of time, if you think of MIT as the universe that you were part of, it really was across that universe that brought together a lot of different centers that were outreached to private sector and across Africa. So tell me how that all came together. I mean, it's one thing to have the idea and another thing to have some professors behind it, whatnot, but this was across the world?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah, sure. As you pointed out, after I participated in Beat the Pandemic, MIT Global Programs reached out to me because they initially were sponsors of the Africa Innovate Conference and they pitched the idea of being like, "Oh, do you want to do the same thing for an Africa-focused hackathon?" And I immediately jumped on the opportunity. I had a few weeks left before graduation. I had the frustration of having put in a lot of work for a conference that ultimately hadn't happened. And so, I was really keen to recreate the experience that I have had as a participant, now as an organizer and really to tackle solutions dedicated to Africa.
So, I ended up putting together a team of 40 people, not just Sloanies but also students from across campus, staff and faculty, and together we worked... It was a really short timeline. It was over two weeks, we put together this hackathon in what, very honestly, ended up being one of the highlights of my MBA. It was a great experience.
Christopher Reichert: So when we think back on large problems that required massive solutions, and I'm thinking of things like the New Deal back in the U.S. back in the 1930s, the idea of a top-down approach seemed to be the order of the day, whether that it's that or say the Manhattan Project or organizing for World War II, things of that sort of epic scale. But this one seemed to have a much more grassroots approach. What I'm getting at is, I'm trying to figure out what the team structure was like? And was there an organizing committee? Was it fluid? And how did you coordinate so many partners and get so many people on in two weeks?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. So we had a large team. As I said, it was 40 people. We were split up between different work streams. We had the benefit of piggybacking on the Beat the Pandemic event that had been organized a few weeks before. And so we had an idea of what needed to be done in terms of reaching out to sponsors, recruiting mentors, marketing the event, getting applications, reviewing them, talking to judges, making sure we have the prize money. There was a lot of things to be done, but we at least had an idea of what the event was going to look like. And then we could adapt it specifically for this Africa focus and really come up with problem statements that our participants ended up working on over the weekend.
Christopher Reichert: So, the hackathon was over the weekend and then the two weeks prior to that you... Tell me about some of the ways that you organized. I read that you were using Slack, obviously email I'm sure, and, wait for it folks, Zoom, right? What's involved? But in terms of organizing, getting the problem statements gathered and collated and sorted, how much were the different partners involved, whether at MIT? I noticed when we went to the website, there were just an incredible amount of organizations involved. Logos just all over the page. That's a lot to organize.
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. And that was really one of our main goals from the beginning was to get as many partners as possible. We really wanted partners for three main reasons. First, before the event, some of the partners, especially those that had a local presence and really a good understanding of the actual problems that were going on on the ground in Africa, because even though the virus is the same, the problems aren't the same everywhere, and we really wanted to have these localized problems. So we needed partners to help us design these problem statements and help us spread the word. So, get the word out, get some participants, get some mentors, et cetera.
Christopher Reichert: So really get down to a macro level of what the challenge is, the specific challenges were in different areas as opposed to the micro?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah, exactly. Then during the event, we asked our partners to provide support and resources, whether it be some mentors. We had about 300 mentors throughout the event that helped the teams throughout the weekend, as well as more kind of data and actual cards, resources for the teams to work on. And then the final and possibly the most important point is, is in post-hack and post-implementation. The fundamental reason why we set up this challenge was not just to create solutions for the weekend, but also to help teams that wanted to continue working on their solutions implement them after the weekend and really come up with implementable solutions very quickly because these were problems that needed a solution very rapidly as well. And so, we had some partners that, not just provided mentoring, but also funding and overall support to some projects and companies that were built throughout the weekend.
Christopher Reichert: I noticed that there were, well, I see Track A through J in terms of the winners. So tell me about track system. Was it by technology or by a problem, or how did you divide? And then, did people submit to a specific track and then they were winnowed down to winters?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. We had 10 tracks overall. We had 1,350 participants from 107 countries, including 44 on the continent. And we had over 50% of our participants from the African continent, which was really amazing. We were so happy to have so much representation from the continent and it showed us the power of doing a virtual event like this. But, yes, we had 1,350 participants that were divided into 10 tracks. Each participant decided which track they wanted to be in when they applied to the event. And we had tracks ranging from how do you ensure appropriate testing? How do you ensure that primary care continues in the time of COVID because that's a huge issue that especially African nations, especially in West Africa, it had been a big issue for them during the Ebola crisis.
We had a track on how to ensure appropriate energy access for hospitals and clinics around the continent in this time of crisis. We had another track, more on the economic front as to how do you ensure people can actually stay in lockdown when people earn a daily income, which, again, is not something you think of when you think of the COVID crisis in America or in developed markets, but it's a huge issue in emerging markets and in Africa in particular.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. I mean, we complain about social safety net in the US compared to say the European model and whatnot. But it just... That really is no comparison to the challenges that are in Africa, right?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah, yeah. Totally.
Christopher Reichert: Much more fundamental. So, getting those 10 tracks together, I was so fascinated by the notion of in two weeks organizing, getting your head around this huge challenge, and somehow making sense of it so people can then, when they arrive at the hackathon, focus on their area as opposed to this 195 degree, we can't even see it all problem. So tell me more about that and how did you coalesce around those tracks?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. I think one of the powers of a virtual hackathon, and of all hackathons I'd say in general, is that even though we had these 10 tracks, we ultimately ended up having 175 teams propose different ideas. That meant that we essentially had 175 different ideas come to fruition during this weekend. And so we had a team formation process that happened in the beginning of the weekend, and then teams were formed and teams started working on their…
Christopher Reichert: So, I've been part of unconferences where you turn up and things get thrown up on a whiteboard and people just gather like birds of a feather. Something interests them and they just gather. Is that same sort of idea here where people saw as many ideas as there were, maybe there were a couple of hundred ideas, and then they just self-selected?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yes, although it was virtual, so it was much harder and it was much more logistically, I'd say, that was probably the hardest part of organizing the event, was the team formation. Because essentially in an in-person hackathon, the way it works is you have people walking around the room meeting each other, talking about their idea, just bouncing off ideas, and then team forms kind of organically. And then some teams stick, some teams don't, and that's kind of how it works in-person.
Christopher Reichert: Sounds like an MBA entrepreneurship class.
Benjamin Boutboul: Basically. But virtually, obviously, that's not possible. So we worked with Zoom and Slack as you mentioned, but essentially individuals would pitch 30 to 40 seconds broad idea that they wanted to solve, and then they would be assigned to a specific Slack channel in which other people could then join and then they could start bouncing off different ideas and forming a team like that. It wasn't perfect, certainly, but it did work and it did work in recreating a somewhat of the in-person experience that other hackathons have. But it was the trickier part, I'd say, of the overall organization.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. A great experience. I mean, I think that given that so many companies are coming around whether by choice or by force to the notion of remote teams and virtual teams as a new norm, I think this is probably a great experience for you in what you do next. So before I talk about what's next, just tell us about some of the winners and what's happening with them.
Benjamin Boutboul: Sure. So out of the 175 teams, a month later we sent out a survey and we had about 60 to 70 teams that were still continuing to work on their ideas and now I occasionally get updates from some of them. We still put them in touch with different partners and whenever we hear of a funding opportunity, we still have our Slack workspace that's still open and active. But now a lot of the projects have taken off and they're doing their own thing.
Some of the projects, there was one that created an internet radio in East Africa, specifically targeted towards nurses and doctors in hospitals, where they could just listen to it as they're treating patients and they can get new information on what is going on in new treatments available. There's one that created an app to scan news and to determine which news was newsworthy or was fake news, because that was a big issue, especially on social media, especially on WhatsApp, as news really circles around on WhatsApp on the continent. There's another one that created a solution to help tell people when there weren't as many people in open-air markets and when they could actually go and buy their food for the day so that they wouldn't need to be with a lot of people. And there were a lot more. I could talk for a lot longer on this.
Christopher Reichert: Traffic. It's fascinating. I think outside of COVID there's probably some really good business ideas or business…
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. Absolutely.
Christopher Reichert: ... technologies in there. So how did you choose Sloan? Tell me about your process of getting into business school or choosing business school?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. So I’d say two reasons, one professional and one personal. On the professional side, I was working in the energy sector and renewable energy and I wanted to do something in Africa, more entrepreneurship start-ups related. And so, being part of Sloan and being part of the wider MIT to me was something that I found extremely appealing. I ended up having the opportunity to take classes outside of Sloan, and one of the... I don't have an engineer background but it was great to get my hands dirty and take some more engineering classes related to energy.
The personal side is that my dad actually went to Sloan. He was class of '86. And so I had known and heard about MIT since being a kid. Yeah. So it was great to also have this shared experience with my dad.
Christopher Reichert: And how did your time at Sloan change you from what you thought you were going to get into learning, to where you are now two years later?
Benjamin Boutboul: A lot of ways. I think I applied to Sloan and to business school to get out of the world of finance and do something more operational and really pivot to more emerging markets and Africa. And actually reflecting on my time at MIT, I actually did a lot of that. I did a number of opportunities that really put me in that direction. And I'd say, it's not as if every day I was waking up and I was thinking of what would put me in this right direction. It kind of happened naturally over time.
Christopher Reichert: To let it wash over you, right?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah, exactly. Like the opportunity to just... Came here and there. And I just ended up doing a lot of things that ended up putting me in that direction. I’d say as well, it made me a lot more confident to tackle a lot of business problems. Before I was in a more narrow energy finance field. I really think it taught me how to think about different industries and different problems and different geographies in a way that I couldn't before. So now I can work on, let's say, a cybersecurity company. I did a project with McDonald's, with Ops Lab, to now I'm working with a small pharmaceutical company, basically without necessarily having prior knowledge on these industries. The overall education that I got at MIT now put me in a good position to do that.
Christopher Reichert: I normally ask people if they could have a do-over at Sloan, what would they do? But I think because it's probably so fresh, let me ask you a different way. If you had another semester at Sloan, what course or courses would you try to cram in?
Benjamin Boutboul: I don't know. Honestly, I've had a lot of time to reflect on these past two years, especially given how our MBA ended and the fact that it was virtual classes. We were confined at home for the end of it, which obviously wasn't the end of the MBA that we were all expecting. Graduation was online. Classes were online. There were a lot of things that didn't happen as we thought they were going to happen.
Christopher Reichert: Absolutely.
Benjamin Boutboul: But it did provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my time. And honestly, I wouldn't do anything necessarily differently and I wouldn't necessarily do anything more than what I did. I'm personally very happy to have ended the MBA on this high note on this hackathon. And even though we were faced with a lot of uncertainty, even though everything that was going on in the world with COVID, I'm very happy to have taken advantage of my time at MIT until the last minute.
Christopher Reichert: Excellent. So what is next now that you've graduated and you're back in France? What's the prospects looking like?
Benjamin Boutboul: Yeah. So I'm back in France for now, for the summer. I'm spending some time with my family and still actually recruiting for jobs. I want to go back to Africa and so more working in start-ups. I have a few options but I'm still figuring out where exactly I'm going to be next. Now during the summer, I'm actually working on two projects, one with my sisters and one with my dad, and so I'm, again, two separate industries that I've had no previous experience. And my sisters had a fashion company in Paris and my dad has a small pharmaceutical company, and I'm helping them on some operations and some e-commerce projects. So that's keeping me busy for the summer. Also, just nice to see my family and my friends here in Paris. Then we'll see where I end up after that.
Christopher Reichert: I also ask the question of what was the last thing you really geeked out about, which it might be hard to think about after that hackathon, but what have you geeked out about since taking a breather?
Benjamin Boutboul: I'd say working with my sisters, I got to know the Shopify platform and it's such a powerful tool that basically enables any business to sell any item online. I've heard of it, I heard a podcast with the founder, which I thought it was great business then, but now seeing the backend of the platform and seeing how my sisters use it with their stores and how it integrates perfectly with their business, I just thought it's such a great business. And, yeah, it's been fun to get to know that aspect of it.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. So any parting advice for people who are considering applying to Sloan?
Benjamin Boutboul: I mean, MIT and Sloan is honestly the best place ever. As I was mentioning, I reflect a lot on my time at MIT and the possibilities of what you can do are really endless. And what I love about it is that it's a small class of 400 people, and basically by the end of your two years you basically know everyone or know of everyone in your class. And everyone has their thing, or their thing that they're really interested in, like I maybe was the energy and Africa person. There was a retail person, there was a space person, but everyone has their own passion and it's really great to see everyone follow these passions and go in their different paths. I'm also excited just to see where people are going to end up in five, 10, 15 years.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. That's right. The journey begins. Well, thanks very much. My guest today has been Benjamin Boutboul, a freshly-minted 2020 graduate of Sloan's MBA program from Paris. Thanks for joining us today.
Benjamin Boutboul: Thanks very much.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, my pleasure. And we're going to put in the show notes some links to some of the articles about the Africa Takes On COVID-19 Challenge so you can read up more about it for our listeners. So, thanks very much.
Benjamin Boutboul: Thank you.
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