Coronavirus Updates

After walking four hours in the heat and dust of rural Northern Uganda, a tired mother and her two little children arrive at a health clinic to vaccinate her young ones. But there’s nothing the health care workers can do; the vaccine is packaged in doses of 10 and may not be opened until enough people arrive to be inoculated. But no one else comes and after a long, fruitless wait, the family turns around for the long walk home.

That’s the kind of situation that Chicago Booth student Joel Ayee wants to help prevent. As part of the Financial Times MBA Challenge, the Evening MBA student led a team of four that includes students from institutions around the world in creating a business plan to boost vaccination rates in Uganda.

“This situation is frustrating. It’s shocking,” Ayee said.

Born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, Ghana, and the United States, he has learned to navigate different cultures and gained a global perspective that pushes him to change the world for the better.

Ayee’s team, Shield, finished third in the FT MBA Challenge with a plan suggesting ways to restructure vaccine distribution and to crowdshare information so that Ugandans arrive in groups to receive vaccines. Ayee used operations and management strategies he is learning at Chicago Booth to fight this pressing problem and to arrive at a smart solution. The Financial Times announced final team standings November 11.

The second-place team, iVaccinate My Child, also has a Booth connection—its team leader was Full-Time MBA student Alfa Bumhira. It is the second consecutive year that Bumhira has had a strong showing in the competition. The team he was on in 2014 finished third.

Each year the FT MBA Challenge invites teams to submit business plans to help a charity organization. This year’s organization is the International Rescue Committee. To be eligible, teams were required to have members who live on at least three continents. At least one team member must be pursuing an MBA during the competition. Ayee used the competition’s matchmaking service to find his teammates.

“Everyone came with different perspectives and skills, and we leverage team members’ backgrounds,” said Ayee, who was elected team leader. “One worked for a pharmaceutical company in packaging, so it was important getting his viewpoint. Another was in change management, which will help us motivate health care workers so they’re putting effort into passion into treating patients well. And I have experience in operations, which is key to finding solutions to this problem.”

Ayee has always fit in, even when he has stood out. He was a black child in a mostly white suburb in South Africa during the turbulent dismantling of apartheid.

“I remember the riots when Nelson Mandela was released,” said Ayee, recalling seeing a tank rumble down his quiet suburban street as a 7-year-old. “I remember the mall was taken over by demonstrators. My suburb was on lockdown.” From there his family moved to Accra, the capital of Ghana, before his parents took US teaching positions at a college in a small town in northwest Iowa.

“That was a culture shock, but I had a great childhood with lots of friends,” said Ayee.

After gravitating toward finance and graduating from Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, Ayee interned at Smith Barney before becoming an analyst with Aon Hewitt, and now Goldman Sachs.

Ayee never forgets his roots, volunteering as a mentor for Upwardly Global, which helps highly trained immigrants find work in their fields in the US. He helps them shorten and adapt their resumes to fit American companies’ expectations, and he helps prepare Upwardly Global's jobseekers by conducting mock job interviews with them.

“I’ve met so many amazing people, like this civil engineer from Egypt who had to work at a factory putting boxes together, far away from what he was qualified to do. Along the way, he found a job in his field,” Ayee said. “You see people come to this country to support their family and it’s challenging to find work. I’m glad I can help in any small way I can.”

When it was time to consider an MBA, “It wasn’t hard to pick Booth.”

“I didn’t know that it was so strong in so many other areas: management, social psychology, Negotiations and Power and Influence classes.”

“After interacting with alumni and students—they’re mature but down to earth and genuine—I realized the great opportunity that comes with Booth, the flexibility program provides,” Ayee said. “I didn’t understand how important that was, what that meant till I got here. If you have advanced knowledge, you can take advanced classes.”

Ayee put his Booth experience to work on the FT MBA Challenge. “The New Venture Strategy course I took with professor (James) Schrager forced me to take a step back and look at the entirety of our proposal and whether it was applicable to the situation in Uganda,” Ayee said. As one of the finalists, Ayee’s team appears to be on the right track. All he wants to do is help.

“I hope some of our ideas make it into the winning proposal,” he said.

—Eric Gwinn