Between March 16th and March 24th I spent an inordinate amount of time on buses. 22 hours commuting between Kigali and Kampala. An additional 12 hours on a bus traveling from place to place in and around Kampala. A lot of people (myself included) would wonder why anyone would spend an average of four hours a day on a bus? My answer? The Babson Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy and the 120 students who attended it.

The BELA Uganda project had been in the works for quite a while. Elizabeth Nakato–a current Babson Undergraduate–and Ugandan national saw how well the program has been received in Ghana, Rwanda and Tanzania and wanted to add Uganda to the list of countries that had hosted the Academy. Elizabeth connected Babson with Empower African Children, which brought  its Spirit of Uganda dance company to Babson in the Spring of 2012 and then partnered with Babson to make Elizabeth’s dream of a BELA Uganda into a reality.

On Saturday March 16th, seven graduate students, six undergraduate students and one Dean of the Graduate School at Babson College touched down at the Entebbe airport. By Sunday, Matt Pelton–a friend of Babson who has instructed during BELA in both Ghana and Rwanda–and I met up with the group and the teaching team was formed! I think that the team had high expectations. We wanted to provide what EAC calls a “Transformative Learning Experience”, we wanted to change these students lives by sharing the skill set that we’ve learned at Babson with them. No one wanted to let Elizabeth or EAC team down.

The BELA team! From Left to Right, Front Row: Susan Roberts, Mallory McQueen, Maria Cobb, Isabella Giraldo, Elizabeth Nakato, Eriko Nishimoto 2nd row: Raphael Leonard, Reena Chawla, Joy Malabanti, Nicole Smith, Amy Malinowski, Rayshawn Whitford, Roddy Radnia 3rd Row: Matthew Pelton, Dean Dennis Hanno

The BELA team! From Left to Right, Front Row: Susan Roberts, Mallory McQueen, Maria Cobb, Isabella Giraldo, Elizabeth Nakato, Eriko Nishimoto 2nd row: Raphael Leonard, Reena Chawla, Joy Malabanti, Nicole Smith, Amy Malinowski, Rayshawn Whitford, Roddy Radnia 3rd Row: Matthew Pelton, Dean Dennis Hanno

This trip was my first foray into the world of BELA and I can’t even begin to explain just how fantastic the experience was. We started out on Monday by really getting to know each other, playing lots of ice breakers and getting the students to open up a little bit. From there we began to dive into the Thinking section of Ideas to Action (the workbook that Dean Hanno, Nicole Smith, Amy Malinowski and Steven Chisa have developed), talking about the importance of knowing yourself before trying to start a venture. The students were asked to share their core values and leadership style before beginning to discuss passions.

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Students holding up the Ideas to Action workbook.

On Tuesday we toured the campus and began to talk about the community the students were a part of, the characteristics of that community and how the students could seize opportunities by looking at the needs of the community. We began to brainstorm ideas for providing solutions to community problems and by the end of the day the students were excited to continue the idea generation process as a homework assignment that night. By the end of the day on Wednesday the group was all discussing their ideas for business ventures that could fill the gaps that the community needs create. It’s amazing to see the glow students provide as the spark of an idea becomes a fire inside them as they begin to realize “wait I don’t have to look to others to solve this problem, I can do it myself!” This truly shows as the students come together on Friday morning and pitch their ideas to each other before deciding who will represent the group at the final rocket pitch competition. The group then helps the finalist to prepare before they pitch on Friday afternoon.

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The Phenomenal 15 Team
From Left to Right: Esther, Mima, Betty, Me, Lloyd, Violet, Diana, Milton, Isabella

After lunch the pitch competition begins in earnest, with students, guests, school administrators and members of the Babson team coming together to listen to the various opportunities that students have found and listening to how they intend to exploit those opportunities through new ventures. In Uganda these ideas ranged from manufacturing paper bags to lessen the damage done to the environment by polyethylene bags, custom frame design, storage centers for surplus crops and even a documentary film production company! Not only is it amazing to hear these business ideas but watching the same students who were too shy to stand up in front of a group of ten on Monday pitching in front of over a hundred people with enthusiasm and confidence is an incredibly rewarding experience.

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Betty representing our team at Friday’s pitch competition

Dean Hanno frequently tells the teaching teams he brings with him on the trips that it will be a life changing experience for them. When I heard this I thought to myself “maybe for people who haven’t been to Africa before, but I live here”. What I soon came to realize was just how wrong I was. Seeing the transformation in the students between Monday and Friday is always a rewarding experience. But the thing that truly impacted me was the enthusiasm the students brought each day. I like to think that I’ve always been good at taking advantage of the opportunities offered to me. What my students helped me to remember is that we’ve all got to be constantly looking for those opportunities. They were hungry to learn, excited to share their ideas, and most importantly still pushing to grow constantly. We went to Uganda looking to provide a “Transformative Learning Experience” and were pleasantly surprised to find that we had received one as well. There’s a lesson we can all take from the BELA students. It isn’t enough to simply think, we have to be willing to act, and take the risks associated with those actions if we want to continue our own journeys of self-development.