Quick thinking by University of Iowa Tippie College of Business leaders arranges last-minute summer work experiences for students whose internships vanished in the pandemic haze.
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Tom Snee
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Inoussa Maiga
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Tippie College of Business senior Mariah Kluesner (on screen), from Farley, Iowa, speaks with Nawsheen Hosenally, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship alumna who ownsMEDIAPROD, a communication service for development agencies in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Kluesner helped update the business’ overall digital communications strategy during a summer internship.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college campuses and businesses, thousands of planned summer internships disappeared too.

But 36 students in the Tippie College of Business found a Plan B summer internship thanks to the university’s relationship with the U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. The Tippie students are interning this summer with alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship who own businesses in their home countries in Africa.

“It works really well for the students and the fellows,” says Dimy Doresca, director of the Institute for International Business in the Tippie College of Business and academic director of the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Iowa. “The students who wouldn’t have anything to do are getting a unique international business experience and cross-cultural opportunity, while the alumni fellows are getting advice to help their businesses grow.”

The Mandela Washington Fellowship started in 2014 and brings hundreds of young entrepreneurs and policymakers from African countries to the United States every summer to learn about business and government. Since its inception, nearly 4,400 alumni have completed the fellowship. Iowa has hosted 25 fellows every year since 2016, and now has 100 alumni.

But the State Department postponed this year’s program because of the pandemic. At the same time, employers around the country were dropping their summer internship programs, costing university students the opportunity to build their careers with on-the-job experience.

Doresca saw an opportunity: match a suddenly internship-less Tippie student with a Mandela Washington Fellowship alum. Working with Cindy Meis, director of career management for the Tippie College’s specialized master’s programs, and Nicholas Kavanaugh, assistant director of undergraduate experiential learning, it took only about a month of planning for the African Innovators program to come together.

“Now, any student who wanted an internship was able to have one, even though it’s different than what they expected,” says Meis.

“This is a one-of-a-kind experience to learn about a whole different economy. I’m thankful the university was able to host this, not just to have something on my résumé for the summer, but because it’s so interesting and I can learn about another country. It feels great to see the work that we’re doing is highly valued and will save farmers time, money, and improve their quality of life.”

Benjamin Bertell
master in business analytics student, UI Tippie College of Business

The African Innovators interns are 25 undergraduates and 11 graduate students, and come from most of the Tippie College’s academic departments. The internships last from June 15 to Aug. 6, and the interns work 15 to 20 hours a week from their homes across Iowa and the United States—and, in the case of one international student, Brazil. They communicate with their mentors using Zoom, telephones, or email and are flexible with each other to work over time zone differences that range from five to seven hours.

Doresca says the interns are doing a variety of projects for the entrepreneurs, including a lot of digital marketing and social media. He says the pandemic has shown the entrepreneurs the importance of social media and online marketing in reaching their customers.

He says interns are also helping to build things like accounting recordkeeping, inventory databases, and financial reporting systems.

Tippie senior Mariah Kluesner is working with Nawsheen Hosenally, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship alumna who ownsMEDIAPROD, a communication service for development agencies in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. As one of its services, MEDIAPROD launched AgriBusiness TV in 2016, a web TV channel that provides helpful information for farmers and encourages young people to pursue careers in agriculture. Although the channel has a lot of followers, Hosenally says she worries it’s going stale after four years, and she wants to freshen it up.

“It’s doing very well, with a large audience,” she says. “But we felt we needed an update, with a new communications strategy and more opportunities to monetize the content.”

Hosenally was paired with Kluesner, a marketing and business analytics major from Farley, Iowa, and they started working together in June. Kluesner helped update the business’ overall digital communications strategy using skills she had just learned in a Digital Marketing class. She audited AgriBusiness TV’s website and social media channels, analyzed Hosenally’s competitors, and identified new audiences and developed key messages to reach them. She’s made several recommendations, including search engine optimization (SEO) tips, as well as shorter and more varied types of videos.

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“She’s done a very good job,” Hosenally says. “I was looking for an external opinion from someone who could look at us with fresh eyes and give us their opinion. She’s done exactly what we’ve asked her to do and worked very hard. I’m very happy with her work.”

Kluesner, a senior in the Tippie College, has enjoyed working with Hosenally and learning more about Burkina Faso while participating in international business in a way she never anticipated would happen. She worked about 15 hours a week on the project during the summer while working a full-time job in her family’s construction company.

She said the project has given her confidence that she can try new and different projects and succeed. She’d done little in the way of digital marketing before the internship and admitted she felt nervous when pushed outside her comfort zone.

“I learned to just trust myself and not second-guess my decisions,” she says. “Nawsheen is good at telling me she appreciates my work and when she’s going to incorporate my suggestions into her strategy.”

Benjamin Bertell, a master in business analytics student, and Ben Hahn, a UI senior, are working with David Watson Mwabila, a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship alumnus who owns Fourth Line Ltd., an agribusiness company in Lusaka, Zambia. The company provides a variety of services to farmers in Zambia, helping them increase productivity, expand their product lines, and produce higher quality products. The company recently added a new service that provides micro-loans to smallholder farms in the region. Mwabila turned to Bertell and Hahn to develop a way to automate the process so farmers can apply for loans from their phones. Hahn and Bertell developed a chatbot that allows farmers to apply for loans via SMS. The service would also provide weather updates and advice for boosting yields over farmers’ devices, among other functions.

The Iowa students talked with Mwabila to find out what information the bot needed from applicants while keeping in mind that smartphones are not as ubiquitous in Zambia as in the United States, so a lot of applications would still be made with less-advanced devices—thus the need for SMS. They developed the code for the bot and also built a system where the information can be stored. Hahn, a finance major, is also a computer science minor, which has proven helpful in programming the bot.

“Ben and Ben have showed exemplary commitment and innovation in their work with us,” Mwabila says. “The system they are developing will give us a competitive edge in the market, a milestone that would have been hard to accomplish without their input.”

Along the way, Bertell has talked with other businesspeople in Zambia as well as farmers who will use the bot, learning more about a country and people he was only vaguely aware of before.

“This is a one-of-a-kind experience to learn about a whole different economy,” says Bertell, who’s working from his hometown of Iowa City. “I’m thankful the university was able to host this, not just to have something on my résumé for the summer, but because it’s so interesting and I can learn about another country. It feels great to see the work that we’re doing is highly valued and will save farmers time, money, and improve their quality of life.”

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. The University of Iowa is a sub-grantee of IREX and is implementing a U.S.-based Leadership Institute as a part of the fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, visit mandelawashingtonfellowship.org.