A few months ago, I was speaking to a colleague about investing in a team of entrepreneurs in Africa. He said that he liked the team, but was a bit surprised one of the partners was a graduate of Harvard Business School. "I'm always confused," he said "when I speak to someone who could be making millions on Wall Street but decides to move to Africa to invest in agriculture companies."
Mira Mehta, my friend and former colleague, has gone one step further. After getting her MBA from HBS, she shunned the typical post-MBA career path and chose instead to start an agri-processing company based in Panda, Nigeria. 80% of Africans work in the agricultural sector and the continent has 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land. Yet Nigeria, a country with 200 million people, imports most of its processed food from abroad. Mira's start up "Tomato Jos" is trying to change that by growing and processing tomatoes locally.
In a country plagued by domestic terrorism and recession, Mira has raised $500,000 in seed capital and built an impressive pilot operation with yields 3-5x the standard for the region. She has achieved these results in a place 2-3 hours by road from the closest major city and no access to the power grid. She is currently raising a $1M+ follow on round based on her progress and has over 50% already committed. The weekend I spent in with her at her farm in rural Nigeria was a sharp contrast to my first MBA reunion, surrounded by classmates who were disillusioned in their roles at investments banks and consulting firms.
MBA programs pride themselves on developing future leaders. Traditional post-MBA roles at banks, consulting firms and major corporates offer incredible professional development programs. But you can also gain invaluable experience as well as professional fulfillment in non-traditional opportunities. As an entrepreneur, you can learn a lot raising capital, building a team, and dealing with constant setbacks. The entrepreneurial perspective is something people like myself who opted for more traditional post-MBA roles often lack, as my friend in Seattle pointed out in his recent blogpost (I am in the unnamed person who never ran a business who said debt is good).
So to the MBA students who will graduate in 2017 and beyond, I would urge you to look beyond some of the traditional careers and at least consider some of the exciting alternatives. Living in rural Nigeria isn't for everyone (I spent four years working in West Africa and the weekend I spent on Mira's farm was enough for me), but there are incredible opportunities for people willing and able to take the risks. Finance, consulting and corporates have their perks, but there are other ways to learn the fundamentals of business and leadership. So go try something new future MBA grads, and worst case, at least you're less likely to say something uninformed like I did when your entrepreneur friends ask for advice.