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Building bridges: Creating connections between American business schools and African students

“We’re going to Africa.”

As Terrell Williams, MIT Sloan’s Associate Director for Diversity Recruiting, Admissions, prepared for a recruiting trip to four African countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, he considered how to effectively navigate some daunting infrastructure. As can happen with international travel, logistics were a challenge. “Visas. I was worried about visas,” he said. “And vaccinations.”


American business schools featured in the Top MBAs event

Top MBAs, a program focused on creating possibilities for undergraduates interested in attending American business schools, was held May 15-26, 2023. The event gathered admissions representatives, alumni, and potential students for a series of events in Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg. 

This was to be Williams’ first-ever trip to Africa and the first for anyone from MIT Sloan’s Office of Admissions since 2019. Alongside colleagues from several other business schools including the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Columbia Business School, Chicago Booth School of Business, UCLA Anderson School of Management, Tuck School of Management at Dartmouth College, and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, he wanted to investigate increasing access for African students interested in an American business school education.

A global pandemic closed the bridge MIT Sloan had begun building between itself and African students. Williams and his colleagues in business school admissions wanted to reopen it. 

The business of business school recruiting

Leading African universities, including the University of Ghana and Ashesi University,  alongside top-tier American management schools, staged events in Accra, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; and Johannesburg, South Africa for promising undergraduate students interested in American business schools. The agenda included panel discussions, speaker events, and networking opportunities with African-based organizations and alumni from participating management schools.

Educators and administrators tapped their institutions’ alumni networks to create interest in the program. Alumni from participating institutions shared the opportunity with undergraduates who’d shown interest in pursuing business school after graduation. Volunteers from host schools helped organize and provide space for events.

Williams, for his part, was excited to participate. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to represent MIT Sloan and partner with colleagues from other institutions in support of this important work,” he said. 

Collaborative recruiting among top-tier business schools can help admissions officers leverage their institutions’ scale and reach to help underserved students. “We want to figure out how to get these students accepted, supported, and graduated,” Williams asserts. 

More than gaining admittance, Top MBAs wants to help students establish support networks, navigate a new country, meet the challenges associated with completing rigorous coursework, and find long-term success both as students and as alumni.

First stop: Accra, Ghana

“The city was wonderful,” Williams recalled, “and the audiences were enthusiastic.”

Accra is Ghana’s capital city, a land laden with history and traditions stretching back thousands of years. It is a center of commerce and community in the country. “The Makola Market in the city center was incredible,” Williams recalled. 

(l to r), Terrell Williams (MIT Sloan School of Management), Michael Robinson (Columbia Business School), Rachel Woolslayer (UCLA Anderson School of Management), Karla De La Torre (Stanford Graduate School of Business), Nicole Chen (Chicago Booth School of Business), Christian West (Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia), and Lawrence Murray (Tuck School of Management at Dartmouth College)

Top MBAs held an information session at the University of Ghana. Panelists and alumni conferred with potential students throughout the day, answering questions and learning more about how to help people interested in their schools.

Chris Hammond, MBA ’06, and a native of Ghana, is CEO of Achieve and the Deputy Managing Director of Petra Trust Company Limited. He described an educational environment at MIT Sloan in which students could thrive. He also recalled the challenges facing high-performing students of limited financial means.

“Economic inaccessibility was a recurring theme for potential students,” Williams recalls, and with good reason. An MBA from a top American business school can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Add in admissions fees, travel for international students, and housing, and costs can be a massive barrier for many.  

Second stop: Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos is Nigeria’s largest city, the country’s financial and economic center, and a cultural and educational hub. 

“It was exciting to see so many people at our event in Lagos,” Williams said. “There’s potential to sustain a student pathway from here to MIT Sloan.”

Alumni and admissions staff spoke of obstacles overcome, of disparities in access and opportunity met by a vast network of former students like Mojola Ola, EMBA ’22, a son of Lagos and CEO of energy solutions provider GridCrux.

“It’s important for people to see themselves at places like MIT Sloan and alumni are a great resource to help make that happen,” Williams said.

Third stop: Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi is Kenya’s capital and its largest city with more than 4 million residents. It’s also a member of UNESCO’s Global Network of Learning Cities. 

Caitlin Dolkart, MBA ’16, lives in Kenya. She’s co-founder and managing director of Flare Emergency Response. Dolkart shared stories about preparing for MIT Sloan and the support she received while she was a student. She described benefiting from a stable infrastructure, begun by her family and friends and strengthened by other students.

“The audience was inspired when they heard what she had to say,” Williams recalled. 

Fourth stop: Johannesburg, South Africa 

Johannesburg is the capital of South Africa and its most populous city with more than five million residents. From its settlement millenia ago, it rose to become a hub of global commerce, rich in minerals and other resources. 

Rashi Gupta, MBA ’13, Managing Director and Executive Board Member, MFS Africa, encouraged attendees to look beyond the present and envision a future in which they might light a way for the next group of business school students from African cities and countries.

Williams, touring Johannesburg, considered South Africa’s history of Apartheid - the forced separation of the country’s people - the system’s demise, and what had emerged from the ashes. “Look at what’s happened here,” Williams said. “Look at what’s possible.” 

An accounting and a commitment     

It takes time to build infrastructure. Efforts may not yield immediate results. It’s about nurturing the people and providing systems and support where possible. “We have to stay committed,” Williams says. 

Next, Top MBAs wants to recruit more institutions to the cause, to improve the admissions and recruiting infrastructure. Williams and his colleagues in admissions will interview alumni and staff to find out what worked. He’ll ask the host institutions what their students thought about the program and, perhaps, recruit more institutions to host events. 

To learn if these efforts are yielding fruit, they’ll track engagement by asking incoming students how they learned about their institutions. Williams wants to build a long-term system for following potential students from attendance at Top MBAs events through enrollment, graduation, and future successes. 

Ultimately, schools and organizations partnering with Top MBAs will work together to improve opportunities for African students to attend American business schools. It’s all about infrastructure.

“I want us to be the destination school for African students,” Williams asserted. “Why not us?”