The ‘international dialogue’ is a collaboration between Northeastern University (Boston, USA) and Tsiba Business School (Woodstock, Cape Town). What makes the ‘dialogue’ in 2020 so special is that it celebrates its 15th year anniversary in harnessing the diversity and creativity of youth, from two vastly different continents, with world-class business methodologies, to solve daily business challenges faced by startup entrepreneurs. Started by Professor Dennis O’Shaughnessy of Northeastern University, the NU-Tsiba collaboration has remained true to its mission to create thriving entrepreneurs who can drive economic growth.
Assisting small-scale entrepreneurs with the latest business and modeling tools, such as design thinking, has been a strategic objective of Tsiba Business School. Through its entrepreneurship curriculum, ‘Garage’ incubation hub and its burgeoning international collaborations with institutions such as Northeastern University (US), Fontys University (EU) and Impact Hub, Tsiba Business School is actively engaging with the SMME sector to assist with skills development for startup and practising entrepreneurs.
Leveraging value in the SMME sectors is borne by the belief that the small, medium and micro-enterprise (SMME) sectors have the potential to boost employment opportunities. The impact of Covid-19 lockdown revealed the vulnerability of an economy heavily reliant on large-scale corporations that are unable to pivot and respond timeously to rapidly changing market conditions, resulting in significant job losses.
Experiential learning is vital for students to test their academic theories, practically, and to improve in team dynamics and communication skills. As they engage in income-generating project work and interact with local entrepreneurs to help build their businesses, they embark on a learning experience based on application as well as observe the impact of this within a socio-economic context.
Although the NU-Tsiba ‘international dialogue’ traditionally was run as a face-to-face interactive programme to facilitate cross-cultural learnings, what made 2020 unique was that the entire two-week programme was hosted online due to Covid-19 health protocols. Although this limited the cross-cultural value of face-to-face engagement between the students, the aims of building and deriving value from online collaboration remained steadfast.
The business approach employed in the collaboration was the five-stage design thinking model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school). D. School is the leading proponent when it comes to teaching design thinking and follows the following process: empathise, define (the problem), ideate, prototype and test.
The design thinking model was overlaid with the ‘double diamond’ process applied by Dane Hessler that is most often used by design thinking practitioners globally:
Working in small groups across three time zones, Zoom was the primary communication medium supported by WhatsApp, Flipgrid and other technology applications. Mostly though, it was about facilitating communication with each other, assessing progress in each of the stages and continually checking-in on student dynamics that guided the process.
Despite the challenges presented by online engagement, deliverables by the students were outstanding. The extensive use of breakout rooms in Zoom and online guest speakers, helped with the interactions of the students and their entrepreneurs, sparking meaningful conversations and debates.
From assignment submissions, it was evident that Tsiba students’ engagement in real-world, practical learning and journeys with local entrepreneurs provided profound learning encounters. It was really exciting to see how they managed to apply the theory within entrepreneurial contexts, enhancing their abilities to think critically and creatively, while working in teams online.
Of course, Zoom, data costs and technology adoption barriers had to be addressed and extensive planning, funding and training were implemented to address these. Perhaps the most important factor was that these students were working toward a program that had social impact. They were motivated by the fact that their group projects would actually be helping these small businesses. And they did. After the programme, the entrepreneurs were bursting with pride and confidence and were very complimentary on the deep learning experiences as well as the high standard of work done by the students.
Humans are driven by a deep need to progress and contribute. Hence when communities work together to solve real problems that have social impact, they are inspired and able to overcome challenges. Online or offline.