UMD: A Globally Connected University

Smith Students Spark Entrepreneurship

One of UMD’s guiding principles— Fearless Ideas— describes the essence of global entrepreneurship, as a team of graduate students from the Robert H. Smith School of Business learned this past Spring Semester.

As part of the “ChangeTheWorld” Nonprofit Consulting Program at the Smith School’s Center for Social Value Creation, Rahul Shah (MBA/MS ’15), Veena Thangavelu (MBA/MPP ’17), Nick Fu (MBA/MS’15), and Victoria Ryan (MBA/MPP ’17) joined forces to work with the Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (TED) of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), also known as the Tibetan Government-In-Exile.

ChangeTheWorld strives to prepare students to make socially, economically, and environmentally better decisions no matter what career path they pursue. TED’s mission is to mobilize and amplify the Tibetan entrepreneurial spirit by providing end-to-end support for Tibetans of the diaspora, including legal support, mentoring, and advising through a start-up accelerator, entrepreneurship education for youth, and seed funding.

Working with TED to develop a co-curricular entrepreneurship program based on hands-on learning offered the UMD team a unique opportunity to apply their classroom concepts and experiences. Over the course of five months’ work with Tenzin Norsang, program officer of student entrepreneurship at TED, the Smith team strengthened their understanding and appreciation for Tibetan culture, entrepreneurship in refugee communities, and inter-cultural partnerships. The TED initiative is an ambitious charge for the CTA, but one that could help Tibetans who wish to move beyond micro-enterprises to developing leading businesses in their industry of choice.

The program created by the UMD team, therefore, has the potential to provide economic stability and job creation for an entire refugee community. In the process, these entrepreneurs may also achieve a greater level of influence in the discussion of refugee policy in India, potentially providing opportunities for land ownership and access to loans.

“The impact of this project is huge— it’s the foundation of the Tibetan government’s entrepreneurial initiative,” said Pammi Bhullar, director of the ChangeTheWorld Nonprofit Consulting Program. “Essentially, TED is hoping entrepreneurship is going to bring the next generation out of this state of dependency to become more self-reliant. This is a very different way to look at entrepreneurship—using entrepreneurship to lift up a refugee community.”

In January 2015, the students began working with Norsang via Skype to understand the full scope of the project and the potential impact of their recommendation. But it wasn’t until the students traveled to India over spring break for an eight-day sprint of conducting interviews with local entrepreneurs and school teachers, running focus groups with Tibetan youth, and meeting government officials, that the team was able to gather the insight needed to fully develop this entrepreneurship program.

Smith’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) funded the participants with $1,000 grants for their travel to India.

“Being onsite was not only beneficial to the development of our project, but also generated strong buy-in from those who will actually implement the deliverable,” Shah said. “The school principal, administrator, and entrepreneurship teacher saw how passionate the team was about the end goal of creating a pipeline of successful Tibetan entrepreneurs. The positive energy was indeed contagious, and I believe all stakeholders are now very enthusiastic about our final deliverable.”

While the students were in Dharamsala, the team was recognized at the Tibetan government’s parliamentary meetings for their work. They even had the opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, Finance Minister Tsering Dhondup, and Speaker of Parliament Penpa Tsering. In June, the ChangeTheWorld team presented their final recommendations for the co-curricular entrepreneurship program to the TED team.

The Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala then launched a successful pilot of the program, which will be eventually rolled out to nearly 70 Tibetan schools in India. To top the semester off, the team was selected to present at the Tibetan Innovation Challenge in New York City, where His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, was among the panel of esteemed judges.

Commenting on her experience, Thangavelu said: “This project gave us access to a country renowned for its rich cultural diversity that is otherwise inaccessible. Working with a marginalized population to empower an upcoming generation reinforced my personal narrative of being a global change maker.”

Opportunities such as TED have already propelled Smith students in their careers. Upon completion of this project, Shah was offered a job at Technoserve, a nonprofit that develops business solutions to poverty by linking people to information, capital, and markets.

“It’s really great to be in Mumbai, on-the-ground, working with social entrepreneurs and their teams to scale up their organization and impact,” Shah said. “I have to say, ChangeTheWorld genuinely prepared me well.”

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By Pammi Bhullar, Smith School’s Center for Social Value Creation