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Sun 5 Mar 2017 09:42 AM

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Meet the students who took on human trafficking in the FT Challenge 2016

Sponsored content: Four International MBA students used their business school learnings to fight human trafficking and bring home first prize at the Financial Times (FT) Challenge

Meet the students who took on human trafficking in the FT Challenge 2016
(Image: Financial Times and Copyright Christopher Jelf)

When a group of talented individuals come together to solve a problem, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish. Even if those individuals are students, and the problem is a form of modern slavery affecting millions across the globe.

Just ask the four International MBA students from IE Business School who used the business and marketing skills they learned in the classroom to join the fight against human trafficking—and to take home first prize at the Financial Times (FT) Challenge 2016. Here, they tell us how the project came together and how what they learned at IE Business School prepared them to take on such challenges.

What exactly is the FT Challenge?

The FT Challenge is an annual competition that gives students the opportunity to use their business acumen to make a difference.

The four IE Business School International MBAs were on the winning team: Matt Davis, Rebecca Jefferies, Debanjan Mal, and Felicia Okoye. Together, they were part of “Team Umoja,” which Rebecca tells us means “unity” in Swahili.

This year’s competition tasked participating teams with promoting the new smartphone app STOP, an initiative of the NGO and global movement Stop the Traffik. The app collects data and real-time trends on the criminal trade of humans for forced labor or sexual exploitation.

(Image: Financial Times and Copyright Christopher Jelf)

Forming “Team Umoja”: a well-oiled machine

It all started with a like-minded group of students. “I’ve always been interested in working on projects aimed towards a social cause, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity.” Debanjan tells us. “Also, it was a great excuse to work with some of the most talented people from IE and outside.” The rest of the group agrees, stating that the competition seemed like a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

The team members also brought unique backgrounds and abilities that balanced each other out. Rebecca says, “When I decided to form a team I not only thought about who would be inspired by the challenge and truly care about making a difference, but I also had a few people in mind from my classes who I thought were incredibly talented but hadn't had a chance to work with yet.” Felicia has a background in corporate communications and PR, Debanjan in engineering and IT, Matthew in anthropology and history (although he previously worked in consumer goods), and Rebecca in marketing communications and brand strategy.

There was also a requirement for the team to have at least one team member from each region (the Americas, Europe, and Asia/Africa), so using their personal connections, the group got in touch with students from Oxford and Harvard, as well as someone working at the United Nations in Nigeria, growing the team to a total of eight members.

The process—and the fruit of their labor

After forming a team, it was time to get cracking. “We started with a vision and a strategy, but we took that and broke it down into practical, tactical parts that could easily be taken and deployed in real life.” Rebecca says. “For example, we didn't just say, ‘you should partner with an NGO on the ground in South Africa’—we researched the specific organization that they should partner with and had concrete reasons to justify why they were the right partner.”

Of course, there were challenges along the way. The team was forced to work remotely, and the students from IE had never met the members from other regions. “We worked our way through many broken Skype calls and eventually split the work between pairs of people who were co-located,” Rebecca explains. “It was not easy to keep everyone on the same page but ultimately we got into a good working groove and figured out a good way to stay connected and keep things moving forward.”

And that groove proved effective: out of the 60 proposals the competition received, Team Umoja was chosen to move to the next round, at which point they were asked to develop their proposal into a 12-page business plan.

Diving into the topic, the group realized the issue was much more extensive and complex than they had anticipated. According to Felicia, “The landscape, customer profiling in new regions and generally getting to understand this murky, muddled world of exploitation was particularly difficult to grasp.” The team changed course, deciding to “hone in on a geography, a specific type of trafficking and a specific stage in the trafficking process in order to deliver a practical, executable business plan.”

Along the way, they found themselves putting lessons from the classroom to practical use. Matthew says that “the group work, especially in the first term of the IMBA, really helped me prepare for this challenge. You have to know when to speak and when to listen. You learn to recognize the unique contribution of each team member.” Rebecca adds that it helped tremendously to make use of technology-based tools, like beacons and gamification, which they also learned about at IE Business School.

Fast forward to October, when the top three teams were invited to a Financial Times event. Much to their surprise, Team Umoja was announced the winner! Their project won for its innovative marketing plan, focusing the campaign on South Africa due to the country’s reputation as a trafficking hotspot. Their business plan outlined how to get more people to download and use the STOP app on their mobile devices, especially those who have the means to report human trafficking abuses, as well as ways to incentivize engagement with the app through social media and gamification techniques.

Ruth Dearnley, the CEO of Stop the Traffik, said at the awards ceremony that what they liked the most was that “they had ideas that you could put into practice immediately, so we have nobbled some of them.” Not only are the team’s plans already being put to use, but the students have also agreed to continue working with the organization to help with the implementation of the plan.

The team’s advice to future participants? Choose great teammates who are committed to the work, pick a cause that you’re passionate about, and take advantage of your resources. “Either a passion or conviction will allow you to put your best foot forward in this challenge,” says Felicia. “There is no cash prize and it is tough to work with an internationally dispersed team, so what should keep you motivated is the cause and the fact that you will be making a difference.”

Read the full interview to the winners here.

Learn more about the International MBA at IE Business School.

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