What Happens When You Send Students at a Top Business School to Build a Social Enterprise in Sri Lanka?

As part of The General Management Plus Program at the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, students spend nine days living and working in Sri Lanka.

by Julia Loewe, March 19, 2019

During a period of professional development, applying the newly gained knowledge is essential for the learning experience. In the following interview Guillaume Dupont, participant of the General Management Plus Program (GMP+) by WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, shares his experience of the program. In the course of 10 months participants took part in intensive in-class sessions, combined with an entrepreneurial project where they set up a real-life and fully independent social enterprise in one of Asia’s emerging economies. For Guillaume that experience gave him a chance to follow his mission – “changing the world through education”. 

The General Management Plus Program equips participants with general management skills at one of Germany’s most renowned business schools and supports them to apply the new management skills directly in a social entrepreneurship project.

Impressions of the successful opening of the Learning Center in Sri Lanka.

Guillaume, what made you choose the General Management Plus Program at WHU Executive Education and how did you come across the program?

I had the chance to meet Carsten Rübsaamen, Bookbridge’s CEO, in Basel, Switzerland. Since Bookbridge collaborates with the WHU to offer the GMP+ program, he was able to tell me all about it. After hearing his story, my only question was “where do I sign?”. It was obvious from the start that this program would be a huge stepping-stone for my development, both personally and professionally. I defined my mission statement years ago as “changing the world through education”. I saw the GMP program as a direct entry to social entrepreneurship and a way to put my mission statement into action.

Why is social responsibility and social change so important to you?

We are all in the same boat, and honestly, it feels like the boat is sinking right now. From poverty and wars to social and environmental struggles, there is still so much to be done. I believe we are all called upon to play a role in the world, and it is up to each of us to take action and take on responsibility so that we can fix that boat together and steer it to more peaceful seas. I want to do my part, working on something greater than myself, for the sake of the human race and its future. Following on Gandhi’s words, I want to be the change I wish to see in the world.

Your GMP team recently opened a Learning Center in Sri Lanka. What was the reaction from the local community? 

When we arrived, we immediately started distributing flyers and visiting schools to promote our learning center. The enthusiasm expressed by the local community felt like a huge victory from the start. Also, the feedback we got right after the opening ceremony was pretty direct: 84 registrations in the first day, alone. This has never happened in all of Bookbridge’s history, an absolute record breaker. After only 3 days, we reached 200 registrations and had to put newcomers on a waiting list to buy us some time and keep things under control. While such instant success was extremely rewarding, we knew we still had to be careful to live up to people’s expectations. As our coach had mentioned, “success can kill you”. There are countless stories of startups that grew too fast, failed to scale and eventually lost control and crashed.

Were there any specific hurdles you had to overcome during the group project?

To be honest, I don’t remember any specific hurdles, but there were definitely a couple of stumbling blocks which I assume any team working in a foreign country would face. From a teamwork perspective, we had to discuss and address certain points regularly, such as how do we organize ourselves and communicate efficiently.  How do we distribute the tasks and how do we make decisions quickly. Things needed to happen fast, but we also wanted to make sure everyone was on board. 

During their 9-days stay, participants made final adjustments before the opening day.

It was a pretty new situation for each of us, especially from a cultural perspective. We had to learn quickly and adapt to the Sri Lankan way of working and behaving. Being in a new environment with different infrastructure and different procedures can be a bit surprising or even stressful at times. This experience was extremely rich in terms of developing cultural intelligence. 

What were your biggest personal challenges during the final month?

Before talking about the final month, I need to share some critical context with you. Fifty days before we were supposed to travel to Sri Lanka to open our learning center, a major setback occurred and almost stopped the project entirely: our community hero (the person on site in Sri Lanka who was supposed to manage the learning center once it opened) decided to leave the project. Fortunately, we managed to find a new community hero in another location, Pelwatte. However, most of our previous service offering was targeting the education needs of the former location. We basically had 40 days to start our project all over again from scratch.

While I stepped up to lead the team through the turmoil, I encountered a number of challenges. Most people were busy during the holiday period but many decisions needed to be made quickly. It was sometimes tricky to gather everyone’s input and reach consensus about how to proceed further, while ensuring nobody felt left behind. I also took care of the communication with our investor, personally, updating him regularly about the progress while forwarding his expectations and recommendations to the team. Everything turned out great at the end of the project, and these experiences were incredibly valuable for my personal development.

Apart from working on the project, you attended different courses at WHU focusing on leadership, strategy and finance. What key learnings have you been able to apply to your project work?

The courses were extremely relevant to our project, as they all covered specific, critical topics we had to work on. The leadership course was the most impactful for me; with so much material, I was not only able to apply and try out the theory on myself but also within our team. It really helped me to dig deeper into my purpose and role in the team, and gave me some essential leadership tools to better connect with people, such as speaking with charisma and leveraging emotional intelligence. 

After completion of the GMP+, what will your next steps be in your career and personal life?

From a career point of view, I will first have to finish my PhD. I would then like to start my own business(es), and pursue an MBA on the side to make sure I have the skills and tools required to maximize my success.

Regarding my personal life, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to grow and overcome my blind spots. I will keep on developing myself further through more reading and traveling, and plan to reach out to social entrepreneur communities to surround myself with like-minded people.

You can find more informations about the the General Management Plus Program (GMP+) by WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management HERE