Barbara Granek, MBA ’12, founder and CEO of Fishtag, believes students who participate in Action Learning at MIT Sloan presume they will gain valuable, relevant business experience. They often do. But the lab courses also afford them a unique opportunity for advancement.
“They’re getting the chance to experiment and make powerful connections,” says Granek. “That’s precisely what happened to me.”
In the fall of 2020, Granek joined a panel of her fellow Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab) alumni, Michellana Jester (Lecturer, Global Economics and Management), Simon Johnson, PhD ’89 (Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship; Professor, Global Economics and Management), and current G-Lab students for a virtual discussion of the popular Action Learning course that partners student teams with entrepreneurs to solve real-world business challenges.
The panelists spoke about their G-Lab experiences and how the lessons they learned still impact their lives personally and professionally. For Granek, these impacts are quite recent. In 2011, her G-Lab team worked with the entrepreneurial networking non-profit Endeavor to design a global employee exchange program to reduce turnover and improve human resources management, then helped them to implement and monitor a pilot program in Turkey.
Almost a decade later, Granek’s Endeavor connections from G-Lab are helping her transform the seafood supply chain. “I worked with them almost 10 years ago,” she says, “but they were willing and able to help me now.”
Granek spent two years restructuring her family’s fishing company in São Paulo, during which she realized the industry was due for a sea change. In 2018, she founded the seafood supply chain startup Fishtag to strengthen the pipeline between producers and buyers with new technologies. The startup hit the ground running, and when it came time to scale up the business, she sought advice from her old G-Lab contacts. As a result of those conversations, Endeavor selected Fishtag and 15 other companies for its scale-up program, which focuses on the food and beverage sector in Brazil.
“My Endeavor contacts from G-Lab were crucial for Fishtag to get into this program,” says Granek. “They answered my questions about who I should speak to here in Brazil, how best to navigate the organization, and how Fishtag would benefit from the program. That’s how important these connections still are today.”
In addition to helping her forge an influential network, Action Learning taught Granek and her classmates the significance of learning by doing. She emphasized the importance of G-Lab’s practical lessons—especially committing to a company and a project, and avoiding getting lost in “big rocket ship plans”—when speaking with students.
“They need to know how to ask the right questions and to understand what their organizations are actually looking for,” Granek explains. “What a company needs can be very different from what they ask for, so students must work with them to break down the problem and find a simple solution.” As such, Action Learning teaches students to define a problem and structure possible approaches for addressing it.
Each lab begins with classroom lectures, then continues with active collaborations between student teams and their host organizations. Those who enroll in these courses want to attain real-world experience while exploring new subjects of interest.
Jester describes this aspect of Action Learning as “an opportunity for students to take a supported risk in addressing a real-world business challenge while stretching their knowledge and capabilities.” This is precisely what Granek did during her time in another Action Learning course when her China Lab team developed a rebranding strategy and conducted qualitative customer analysis for a cemetery.
“I thought I would never have the opportunity to work for a cemetery again in my life, and it was very different from what I knew,” she says. “But this was a less risky environment for us to work in and explore, and I don’t think students realize how big of an opportunity that is.”
Throughout the G-Lab panel, Granek and her fellow Sloanie alumni shared these and other bits of advice with the students, but one recommendation was abundantly clear: comradery. Action Learning is a group experience, and some of the first—and most powerful—connections participants in G-Lab, China Lab, and other courses make will be with their classmates.
“All of us became very close, and I truly think they are the greatest gift that G-Lab gave to me,” she says of her cohort. “We became lifelong friends.”