Last summer, Richard McDougal spent 12 weeks in Nigeria as a consultant to Cuso International, assisting the non-profit development agency to help unemployed youth become successful entrepreneurs.
For the MBA student at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, the stint was an eye-opener.
"You have to adjust your style to who you are working with," says Mr. McDougal, who spent 61/2 years in the financial services industry in Britain before coming to Rotman last year to earn his two-year degree.
For the project in Calabar, a town in southern Nigeria, Mr. McDougal and another Rotman student were expected to help budding entrepreneurs (and their microfinance banking partners) develop efficient record-keeping for startup businesses selling poultry, fish and other products.
The project's success depended on the Rotman students communicating well with their Cuso client, well-educated Nigerians and, as importantly, many of the youth who had little schooling.
"You ended up thinking a lot more about what if someone couldn't read? How could I show this information?" he says. "It made you think more outside the box about what you can do with images."
Mr. McDougal's consulting project – part of a for-credit course at Rotman – was organized through a partnership that began three years ago between the business school and Cuso.
In the summer before their final year at Rotman, MBA students have the option for several international experiences: work for non-profits (such as Cuso) or for-profit entities through the school's Global Consulting Projects, overseas study exchanges, and two-week trips to a foreign destination.
"We think industry values that experience," says Neel Joshi, director of student life and international experience at Rotman. "Employers tell us they want [graduates with] grit, resilience and curiosity; these are the traits that come out of these global opportunities."
Mr. McDougal describes his Nigeria experience as "a once in a lifetime opportunity to work for three months, give back and fully integrate yourself into the society."
Even with training from Rotman and Cuso on security and other challenges, the students were newly arrived in Calabar when the area was hit by incidents of carjackings and the kidnappings of foreign workers. Local Cuso officials stepped up security and Rotman stayed in daily touch with the students, who kept night-time outings to a minimum.
Mr. McDougal says the episode provided a valuable life lesson as he embraced being outside his comfort zone. "If you don't, you will end up not enjoying the experience," he says, adding, "You have to get on with things and acclimatize to what is going on around you and make friends with the people you are working with."