As a student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business Executive MBA (EMBA) program, Meghan Hammond,’23 (XP-92), was looking for a way to use her business skills to help young companies and nonprofits. That’s when she heard about the Grow Movement Volunteer Consultant Program and was introduced to Boniface Habanabakize and the emerging world of banana wine.
Habanabakize is the founder and president of Virunga Wine Brewery in Kigali, Rwanda, which produces banana-based juice, wine, spirits, and champagne. He started Virunga in 2021 after two decades of community development work in rural areas and was looking for help with financing and marketing to expand the young company.
The Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at Chicago Booth partners with Grow Movement, an international nonprofit, to pair teams of EMBA students and recent alumni with founders in East Africa and Asia. Calling in from all corners of the globe, EMBA coaches meet with founders on weekly Zoom calls to offer guidance in finance, marketing, and other areas
Hammond, senior director of financial planning and analysis at UScellular, was paired with Virunga. “We’ve learned from these amazing professors, and have worked for many years,” says Hammond. “People are trying to build businesses to improve their lives and their communities. If there’s any way to get involved and help them do it, I’m all for it."
The EMBA volunteers surveyed customers and distributors, leading to a few course corrections. For example, they found that customers consume the wine almost immediately, so the company dropped a plan to increase product shelf life. A new ginger-flavored variety is now in the works, thanks to customer feedback. And a new bottle return system provides a small monetary incentive for customers to return their bottles—and replenishes Virunga’s bottle supply.
The company also plans to test price increases on its wine. “It’s selling due to quality, and people say they would continue purchasing it even if the price increased,” Habanabakize says.
Hammond used her experience as a CPA to help the winery fine-tune financial projections for its growth plans. It felt good to be able to help, she says, but volunteering had other rewards as well. It gave her a place to apply MBA skills she hadn’t yet used in her job. She also learned a lot from coaches with different backgrounds, and it was a great way to get to know other EMBA students. “Other team members were based in Europe and Asia,” says Hammond, who lives in Chicago. “I got to know them better in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Chicago Booth’s EMBA program, designed for experienced professionals, is offered at the school’s Chicago, London, and Hong Kong campuses. Students apply to a primary campus but also take classes at the other campuses during international session weeks.
Mark Acosta, ’22 (AXP-21), helped coach HarakaMeds, a Rwanda-based pharmaceuticals home-delivery platform. One of the company’s cofounders, Rene Ishimwe, went to college in the Philippines, where Acosta lives. Ishimwe was working as a pharmacist when he noticed customers often couldn’t get all their prescriptions filled at one pharmacy. They would have to go to other pharmacies or get a replacement prescription from their doctor. He and two partners moved back to Rwanda and founded HarakaMeds to provide a broader market for pharmacies and an easier way for customers to buy prescriptions.
When the company started working with the Grow Movement team in 2022, they were ready to scale their concept, Ishimwe says. But first they wanted to know if the business was viable given the revenue model and cost of doing business. Coaching gave them a better understanding of the financial aspects of the business.
“They were earning revenues but not really sure how to track profitability and how much to charge subscribers,” says Acosta, an assistant vice president and cluster controller with SM Retail. “I helped them develop a financial model to structure the balance sheet, get them ready for funding, manage cash flows, and track expenses. This helps them see what they need to tweak to achieve the desired financial results.”
Ishimwe says the coaching input paved the way to HarakaMeds’ recent “game-changing” partnership with Rwanda’s biggest pharmacy retailer and wholesaler. The company also received feedback on platform upgrades and help with a pitch deck.
Research by Pradeep Chintagunta, Joseph T. and Bernice S. Lewis Distinguished Service Professor of Marketing at Booth, and colleagues at Stanford, Notre Dame, and the London School of Economics, validated the program’s effectiveness. In a randomized control trial of 530 entrepreneurs who were coached by Grow Movement consultants and 400 who were not, coached businesses grew sales by 27 percent. A later study showed that marketing support boosted monthly sales by more than 50 percent on average.
Grow Movement consultants commit to weekly or biweekly one-hour team Zoom calls with founders for about four months. Between meetings, coaches spend an hour or two digging into the details—business case revisions, financial reviews, market research. Grow Movement provided on-the-ground project managers to support both the coaches and the entrepreneurs.
Hammond and Acosta agree that the commitment—on top of studies, work, and home—is worth it.
“It was definitely rewarding,” Hammond says. “We gave them guidance that will help them expand this operation.”
“It’s not just for the entrepreneurs,” adds Acosta, who says working closely with the founders fueled his own startup dreams. “I was inspired. I’ve learned a lot. It made me realize I want to build a business to help people."
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