Wadi Wuayah at sunrise
© FT

It had all the makings of a typical MBA consulting project: under the supervision of a faculty member, a group of MBA students from NYU Stern worked on-site with a client conducting analysis, forecasting market potential, and making a financial model for a new venture.

But the project — developing a business plan for Wadi Wurayah, the first national park in the United Arab Emirates — was anything but standard. The project required students to navigate a delicate private-public partnership between a Middle Eastern government, the World Wildlife Fund and local banks that are sponsoring the park’s development, as well as juggle the competing priorities of conservation and economic growth.

While national parks are often paid for primarily with public money, the MBA students’ challenge was to create a funding model that ensures the park is self-sufficient.

The goal is that this funding model, which involves a combination of philanthropy, park revenue, and government money, can be replicated in other emerging countries.

Ramesh Jagannathan, the director of the IDEALab at NYU Abu Dhabi, oversaw the project. “For the students this was an opportunity to help establish a model for a socially conscious, self-sustaining park that could lead the rest of the world,” he says.

“The students thought of themselves as enablers — they took pride in the legacy they were leaving behind.”

Experiential learning programmes — where students complete a consulting project for a real organisation — have been a prominent part of the MBA curriculum for decades. But in recent years business schools have placed a sharper emphasis on projects that promote creativity and collaboration, according to Dan LeClair, chief operating officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business , the industry body.

“These are not just travel abroad projects. Schools are getting a lot better at this,” he says. “They are putting students into more challenging situations where they are forced to engage more directly with their environment and bring their creativity to bear to solve some difficult problems.”

The push toward more rigorous field experiences is coming in part from the employers who recruit MBAs, Mr LeClair adds. “Companies are looking for agile learners and these kinds of programmes [foster that].”

According to Jamie Tobias, an executive director at NYU Stern who oversees experiential learning projects at the school, employers also increasingly seek candidates who are adept at straddling both the public and private sectors. “You can’t have a narrow focus any more,” she says. “The critical challenges facing society require trisector athletes: leaders who can work across business, government, and non-profit sectors. We are hearing from companies that they need leaders who can navigate this public-private line.”

Wadi Wurayah, located in the Emirate of Fujairah, occupies 118km in the eastern corner of the country along the Hajar Mountains. The park, which gained protected status in 2009 by royal decree, contains Islamic burial grounds, and is home to 208 plant species, 93 bird species and 11 endangered mammals, including the Arabian leopard.

Perhaps most notably, Wadi Wurayah has 69 fresh water habitats including pools and waterfalls, which are unusual in the arid UAE.

“This is a part of the world that in many people’s minds is only sand,” says Prof Jagannathan. “But it’s got mountains, streams, and unique wildlife. It’s a place of archaeological and natural importance so of course it’s precious.”

And yet, in a rapidly developing economy, conservation of precious land is a tricky endeavour. In recent years, Fujairah has emerged as a key oil products trading hub for the region.

“Conservation is extremely complicated and it cannot be done in isolation,” says Ida Tillisch, the director-general at Emirates Wildlife Society, the environmental organisation working with the WWF on the park.

“It involves science, culture, economics, and development. That is why partnerships are so important.”

The alliance with NYU Stern is an instructive example, adds Ms Tillisch. “We are a science-based organisation: our expertise is flora, fauna and wildlife. We work with the government which has expertise in policy and legislation. [The partnership with NYU Stern] was a huge opportunity for us to bring in new skills and competencies in business that we don’t have.”

Competition among students to win a spot on the project, which is part of the Stern Consulting Corps programme, was stiff.

The school’s Office of Student Engagement received 33 applications from MBA students for five spots — the most applications it has had for a single project across its experiential learning offerings. (See sidebar)

Laura Fox, who before business school had a career in marketing and branding, was one of the fortunate five. “What drew me to the project was the chance to push more on this idea about how the private, social and public sector can work together and how we use business to further that,” she says.

In February, Ms Fox and the team spent two weeks working at Wadi Wurayah. They started by interviewing park rangers, government officials, philanthropists, and members of environmentally oriented groups.

“They had ideas about conservation and park design but they also had a lot of questions,” she says, “such as how does this get done, how do we pay for it and who will come?”

The team’s first task was to develop a timeline for the park’s opening and milestones to chart its progress.

“We realised they hadn’t thought about staging this park. They wanted it to be open by 2020 but they didn’t have a plan,” says Ms Fox.

“That’s what business brings — process and a way to break apart really tough problems.”

After the team returned to campus, they created an in-depth financial model that detailed the park’s operating costs as well as necessary infrastructure investments. They also developed a budget and fundraising strategies and devised a marketing plan that showcased opportunities for eco-tourism and education.

“It was an incredible experience working on this complicated and really exciting project,” says Ms Fox, who graduated in May and now works as a consultant for BCG.

The team’s plan is already being put to use, according Ms Tillisch of EWS-WWF. “They came up with a lot of information that was new to us,” she says.

“I hope this kind of partnership can be replicated in other countries. This should be a model for the future in terms of how things get done.”

Campuses drive trend towards experiential learning

When Kanika Jain arrived at NYU Stern School of Business to study for an MBA she knew she wanted to “do something big.

“I was on the lookout for opportunities to give back,” says Ms Jain, an engineer by training who also has experience at non-profits in the developing world.

So when she heard about a course that involved helping launch the first national park in the United Arab Emirates, she leapt at the chance. “This park was going to have a big impact on the country,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

The sentiment, echoed by a generation of MBAs, is helping to drive the trend on campuses toward experiential learning with a social bent. A survey of 1,500 MBA students and graduates from Bain & Company released in October 2015, for example, found that what both men (50 per cent) and women (62 per cent) listed “impact” as their primary career goal.

“Students today want to be engaged in meaningful work,” says Dan LeClair, chief operating officer of the AACSB, the industry body. “They [don’t just want to] make money or advance their careers . . . They are seeking transformational experiences.”

Ms Jain graduated from NYU Stern in 2014 and now works as an investment banker. She says she will continue to work on side projects for non-governmental organisations.

“It’s not just your profession that makes you,” she says. “I can be a banker [but] I can also be someone who’s making an impact on the social sector.”

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