In the last days of 2022, I posted about the opportunities I pursued during the year and their outcome. Many failed, but a few were successful, one of which was an immersion program with Harvard Business School (HBS) during the IFC Ghana course. In this piece, I share my experience as one of the few Ashesi students selected to work with MBA students visiting Ghana for their Immersive Field Course (IFC), Doing Business in Ghana.
IFC Ghana Background
The Immersive Field Course (IFC) experience with Harvard MBA students – second only to my first trip to Europe – was a great way to kick off my 2023. For context, the IFC Ghana course was developed to help MBA students discover the hidden gems of Africa’s business landscape. This course takes you on a journey to Ghana, where you gain a firsthand experience of the opportunities and challenges of doing business in Ghana and across Africa.
From exploring the latest political, economic, and social trends to visiting companies and learning from leaders in politics and business, this experience gave me a comprehensive understanding of Ghana’s business environment – and the Sub-Saharan region, to an extent. But that’s not all; it also enabled us to discover Africa’s cultural and social landscape and uncover the secrets of how businesses in the continent tackle the issues of ethnic diversity and inclusion.
Ashesi’s partnership with Harvard Business School for this course was a sweet spot to drive its mission while supporting HBS students with a comprehensive local experience. When I got the offer to join the program, I was very forward-looking as it was among the few “congratulatory emails” I had received in more than eight months. But as the day drew closer, this forward-looking feeling turned into fear and self-doubt. I was about to work with people who have had incredible professional experiences and are studying in one of the best business schools in the world. This was, admittedly, intimidating upon realization. Looking up their LinkedIn profiles made things even worse.
Surprisingly, it was not as intimidating as I had thought. I developed a strong sense of connection with my team and sampled a wealth of career advice from them. Though they certainly had the edge over several concepts, I was a uniquely critical piece of our team’s puzzle. This experience taught me several valuable lessons – personal and professional – which I have listed below.
1. Do not underestimate the strength of weak opportunities.
When I first saw the email saying to apply, I did not hesitate to submit my application because I have a professional interest in management consulting. However, I must admit that I underestimated the “strength and relevance” of the opportunity. It was one of those applications that seem surface-level exciting, but there isn’t enough information to support its “value”. This is a common trend with people who have “major” international experience and exposure, blinding them from equally important relevant local opportunities. Fortunately, in this case, I was selected to join the team, and the somewhat exciting program turned out to be one of the most impactful career-focused immersions I have ever had.
2. Insight often requires more than one perspective.
When we first talked with our client’s CEO, a medium-sized engineering firm, it was unclear how we could impact the firm as consultants. They seemed to be in “pain”, yet they were fine. From my perspective, they struggled to navigate Ghana’s challenging business ecosystem but were happy with their struggles. It took several hours of digging and interviewing other employees before our team could identify some of their biggest challenges.
This is often the case when we come to learn a new subject. We read a single piece – good or not – and assume we have encountered the ultimate source of enlightenment. This experience taught me that we become more informed and enlightened when we hear different sides of the story: from the admirers, critiques, and indifferent ones. True insight comes from multiple perspectives.3
3. Depth over breadth
When we are suddenly in a place with several high-value people, we are tempted to “connect” with everyone. Contrary to this, I often preach that you form deep connections with a few individuals (depth) instead of trying to speak with everyone (breadth). Throughout the program, I connected with just about a dozen of the 40+ MBA students. In my short experience as an entry-level professional, I have learned that investing in deep connections is often more promising than having several contacts on your LinkedIn/phone.
Throughout the immersion, some of my go-to questions to start a conversation with other people were:
- What was your school-work transition like? And how did you end up in HBS? This was often followed by “What’s your plan after HBS?” This question made me learn about their personal and professional ambitions, and if they were in an industry that interested me, I asked several industry-related follow-up questions.
- What has been the highlight of your experience during this immersion? I used this a lot on the final day of the program.
- Knowing what you now know, what one piece of advice would you give a final-year student about entering the workforce? Basically, asking them for some personal/professional advice. This usually came after I shared my background and interest with them.
A strong network takes years to accumulate but is undoubtedly worth investing in. Quoting the words of Prof Phakeng, Vice Chancellor of Africa’s best University, [young people should] build lasting relationships now – they will come in handy one day when you need them, you don’t know when.
4. Career Optionality
In one of my conversations with Dr Bello-Osagie, I asked him one of my go-to questions when seeking career advice. “Given your wealth of experience and knowing what you now know, what career advice would you give to a student just about to enter the workforce?“
“Do an MBA”, he shared. According to the professor, doing an MBA places you in a unique position to explore potentially any industry. In a way, he shared Eric’s view on Career Optionality, a philosophy I have now subscribed to. He added that people tend to pursue the specialist path, studying one subject for the entirety of their professional life. But in our rapidly evolving and innovative world, we need people with a broad area of knowledge that fits into their expertise. We need t-shaped people.
To wrap up part one, the IFC Ghana experience was an unparalleled professional development opportunity for me. The experience gave me a foundational understanding of the political, economic, and social trends shaping the continent and its businesses. The hands-on experience provided by consulting for companies in Ghana and the opportunity to learn from leaders in politics and business made this an empowering immersive for many participants. While this was relatively short-lived, its impact would undoubtedly be long-lasting as the experience inspired me to aspire to complete an MBA program at Harvard Business School.