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When Jason Lee stepped into a public space in the heart of Cape Town's Philippi township, he realized it was an unconventional summit. Instead of huddling in hotels tucked away in dense urban locales, the World MBA Summit 2018 brought together trailblazing MBA students in a community that is emblematic of the socio-economic challenges confronting South Africa and the region at large. 

"Every day we would cross into Philippi and would see first-hand the rampant poverty we were walking into. And this was the backdrop of our conference," explained Lee, a recent UBC Sauder MBA graduate. "This resonated deeply in everything we discussed. I think everybody who went there had a high-intensity experience, emotionally as well as intellectually, to see what we could do."

Lee, whose studies specialized in Product and Service Management, represented UBC Sauder at the fifth annual MBA World Summit held in Cape Town from March 14th to 16th, 2018. With "social impact" as the theme, the Summit offered 100 MBA students from 41 schools an opportunity to participate in high-impact workshops, exchange best practices and generate creative ideas to resolve critical issues facing societies across the world.

A humanitarian look at business

A striking aspect of the Summit, according to Lee, was how it attracted students with an array of experiences, skills and academic backgrounds. There were students with a background in engineering and finance, as well former journalists and actors. But few arrived with experience working in conflict zones. So, when Lee presented his workshop, "The Business of Humanitarian Work," he had eager listeners. He drew from his experience of working in the Philippines during an escalation in armed conflict in the North Cotabato region from 2008-2009.

Lee made a case for how large corporations can successfully establish manufacturing and operations in or near conflict zones. Multinational corporations are endowed with the necessary resources to continue working without disruption to their supply chain, Lee explained. They lend structural advantages to provide much-needed services in conflict zones and can maintain a long-term profitable presence by contributing to socio-economic stability.

The presentation resonated with listeners across the board. Lee narrows this down to the fact that his recommendations – from bringing stability to supply chains to providing greater security to the workforce – cut across geographies and can be replicated in developing countries or regions recovering from conflict.

Other participants were already keen to collaborate.

"One person wants to start an educational not-for-profit for refugees of war, which is a totally different thing. A lot of my learnings will help her in providing support to refugees and educating them in a conflict zone about the kind of services and supports they need in a business model," said Lee.

Working with the community

Collaborative spirit extended well into the three-day summit. MBA participants partnered with young South African entrepreneurs from local communities to bring an outsider perspective and to give informed advice to strengthen their enterprises.

Lee collaborated with a Philippi-based entrepreneur in his mid-20s. His social enterprise was a waste management business, and for Lee, the opportunity to consult on this project couldn't have come at a better time.

As part of his Global Immersion Experience (GIE) program at UBC Sauder, Lee worked with "SAAHAS Zero Waste," a leading for-profit sustainable waste management company based in Bangalore, India.

"This was a beautiful circumstance where I could use my MBA experience directly to help with the exact same business model that this young Philippi entrepreneur launched by himself. We traded contacts and I offered him help at any time with insights I gathered from my work in India."

Social impact and business principles can coexist

The many workshops, networking opportunities and local collaborations culminated into key learnings for Lee. The World MBA Summit reinforced the philosophy that social impact and traditional business practises can go hand-in-hand.

"It's somewhat rare for someone with my background and the industry I've worked in to pursue an MBA. Coming to the MBA World Summit was the bowtie that tied all my experiences together," reflected Lee. "It demonstrated to me that there is space for social impact work and classic business principles. The summit was living proof that businesses shouldn't be traditional, conservative institutions they have been for so long. MBA leaders from all the top universities are coming together to leverage their experiences to drive significant change. That's a very motivating community to be a part of."