Cover Story

Leadership MBAs Building Bridges

    - by Bill Hayes


The new floating bridge under construction between Bellevue and Seattle bobs in and out of the news a lot these days. Meanwhile, a second lesser-known span is being built – a bridge that MBA students are building between Bellevue and West Africa.


The Leadership MBA Program in Bellevue

While the original Lake Washington floating bridge was designed to connect the Eastside with Seattle, it has also come to serve as a symbol of the capricious and often aggravating commute between the two bustling population centers. For many Puget Sound residents, the bridge creates a psychological barrier keeping Eastsiders on their side and Seattleites on theirs.

This chasm has prompted the University of Washington and the University of Washington Bothell to develop graduate programs for professionals who live and work on the east shores of Lake Washington. One such program is the Leadership MBA program offered in Bellevue at the Eastside Leadership Center. The purpose of the program is to provide professionals living and working on the Eastside with a national-caliber MBA education that focuses on leadership.

“There is a substantial cadre of professionals working on the Eastside who require convenient access to an MBA program,” says Sandeep Krishnamurthy, director of the Business Program at UW Bothell. “Our program in Bothell was already addressing that need for the Upper East Side, but we wanted to be more aggressive in how we serve time-constrained professionals in the Bellevue-Redmond corridor.” Located just north of SR-520, where Bellevue and Redmond blur together, the Eastside Leadership Center (ELC) was opened in the fall of 2009 to meet that very need.

A Bridge to West Africa

One year later, and upon completion of their first year in the LMBA program, students Rotimi Olumide and Ade Ajayi approached one of their professors with an idea: the two students wanted to organize a study-abroad trip for their second year of study.Marketing professor Pete Nye was receptive to the idea, though he had a few concerns. Nye explains, “Most of the individuals enrolled in the LMBA program are established professionals. They are women and men who have busy careers. Many have families to care for. As such, they can’t invest a lot of free time to travel abroad for extended periods.” If the program were to work at all, it would need to be limited to two weeks. A two-week trip was “conceivable” according to Nye, “but it would be very intense.”

Intense is an apt word to describe the two student professionals who proposed the idea. Olumide is a highly energetic business manager at Microsoft, where his high-rise office overlooks downtown Bellevue. Ajayi is a solution manager, also at Microsoft. Both are “passionate learners and excellent leaders,” says Nye.

Nye had an additional concern. Without the benefit of a full-fledged travel office on the Bothell campus, execution of such a trip would require a tremendous amount of planning. Nye adds, “Given that these were MBA students, they already possessed a wealth of organizational skills. Because we were dealing with MBAs, not only was the trip conceivable, it was do-able.”

Nye met with Olumide and Ajayi to discuss overall objectives for a trip. “A central theme of our MBA programs is social responsibility,” says Nye. “The Technology MBA and the Leadership MBA programs weave ethics and social responsibility throughout their curricula. We don’t want our leaders to view the world simply in terms of ‘a place to export my goods,’ or ‘somewhere to access cheap labor.’ Our mission is to instill in our graduates the type of global perspective that defines success in social as well as economic terms.”

The students then discussed potential locales for the trip: China, India, Brazil and South Africa are frequently considered for this type of venture. According to Krishnamurthy, “Those areas have governmental infrastructures supportive of business development, and they offer fairly predictable security environments – which is an important consideration for student trips.” Olumide and Ajayi, however, wanted something that was more outside of the norm.

Both being from Nigeria, the students proposed that a location in West Africa might be a great option. Their connections could help provide a sufficiency of structure from which to deliver a successful experience; and the West African nation of Ghana, in particular, presented a wealth of untapped opportunities for development. Ajayi and Olumide explain, “The Republic of Ghana remains relatively unengaged with American business, although it boasts a growing economy and is rich in natural resources such as gold, oil and cocoa.” More importantly, according to the students, the sub-Saharan nation offered a “perfect opportunity for the LMBA students to focus our studies in three important sectors of global business: trade, telecommunications and microfinance.”

So, the 27 students divided into sub-groups that would focus upon those three specific aspects of the Ghanaian economy. The format worked well in that each individual member of the group had a subject-matter focus in his or her particular interest. In addition, all team members would share with the trip’s varied leadership activities.

The trade team looked into ways that the Puget Sound region could create mutual benefit from a greater volume of commerce with Ghana. The team orchestrated visits to Ghanaian gold mining operations and with cocoa producers. The telecommunications team met with local communications service providers Vodafone Ghana and Airtel Ghana to perform an analysis on the evolving state of communication in the developing world. In particular, the group examined how poorer nations are bypassing traditional land-based phone systems in favor of mobile communications. Only 1.6% of Ghana is wired with traditional land lines, yet more than 65% of its rural population has access to mobile phones. “Communication was a huge challenge when planning the trip to Ghana,” reports Nye. “The fact that the nation has a fairly robust mobile communications infrastructure was one key that enabled us to create a successful trip.”

While the trade and telecommunications teams were going about their work, the microfinance team was busy with its own itinerary. The team coordinated its efforts with Puget Sound-based private organizations, Village Net and Lumana Credit, both of which specialize in providing micro-loans to Ghanaians seeking to build small businesses. Micro-loans in amounts as low as $25 allow opportunities for entrepreneurs to get their products into local markets and become revenue-positive ventures. The microfinance movement has gained extraordinary traction in the last decade in poorer areas of the world. Despite the track record of successes, the microfinance groundswell has been fettered by frequent corruption and inefficiencies. So, the LMBA team implemented an electronic accounting system for the VillageNet microfinance group and recommended improved procedures that would allow the programs to work more effectively for the borrowers.

As each of the three teams went about its distinct activities, Olumide and Ajayi ensured that all of the students were also able to participate in the leadership activities central to the trip. The leadership-focused functions included a parliamentary visit, a meeting with the former Ghanaian vice president, and a summit with the leadership of Ghana’s innovative Ashesi University. Ashesi University’s curriculum was developed, in part, with the University of Washington. Based upon the positive results of their visit, the LMBA students hope to develop more direct ties between UW Bothell and Ashesi. Nye reports that a number of the students are planning to return to Ghana.

While certain aspects of the trip were something of an experiment, the successful outcomes have made the tour a very useful model for future LMBA programs. According to Nye, “Study-abroad programs bring tangible benefit to our community and the region. First, the students benefit from the international educational experience. Our LMBAs become better and more successful local, national and global business leaders through the intensive experience. Secondly, the students apply their experience to the direct benefit of their current and future employers.” One of the LMBAs was recruited and hired for a Paris-based role in an Eastside software company that specifically cited the student’s Ghana experience as a key hiring factor. Nye hopes to offer a study-abroad trip for MBA students on an ongoing basis.

The study-abroad cohort including Olumide and Ajayi, and the rest of the inaugural group of LMBA graduates received their degrees at UW Bothell’s Commencement in June 2011. Meanwhile, the LMBA program will continue its work of building bridges. Krishnamurthy asserts that “the connections made between the LMBAs and West Africa help pave the way for a more open transfer of information, expertise and goods. The Ghana trip demonstrates our program’s ongoing commitment to cultivate businessleaders who possess a well-rounded sense of the global economy and who, therefore, bring great value to their employers. Our mission is to help our graduates develop the sharpest of minds and the keenest sense of social responsibility. Something we call ‘MBAs with a heart.’” 

To learn more about the LMBA trip to Ghana, visit


Did You Know?

The University of Washington Bothell is the largest of the five branch campuses in the state.