In New Course, Students Aim to Build a Business in a Failed State

Three Yale School of Management students are among a select handful from across the Yale campus taking part this semester in an innovative course aimed at creating a livelihood for Somalis displaced by strife in their homeland.

The course, “Building a Business in a Failed State: A Practicum in Hope Village, Somalia,” is being taught by James Levinsohn, the Charles Goodyear Professor in Global Affairs, professor of economics and management, and founding director of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The 15 students include undergraduates from Yale College and students from the Yale Law School and from the Jackson Institute, as well as the Yale SOM students.

Located just outside Mogadishu, Hope Village was created to offer services to Somalis displaced by war and conflict, including a hospital, housing, schools, a sustainable agriculture project, and a women’s education center. It has been home to more than 90,000 displaced persons. But chronic unemployment among residents is a huge problem. “The unemployment rate is especially high among women,” Levinsohn says.

In the course, students are helping Hope Village residents identify a product that they can manufacture, draft a business plan, and begin exporting the product. Students are also working on a second business plan for a product to be sold locally in Somalia. “Our ideal plan is to have our first purchase orders by the time the course ends,” Levinsohn says. But the obstacles are numerous. Somalia is unstable and beset by violence, and corruption is a huge problem. Students can’t visit the country, because of safety concerns.

“This is a huge challenge, but it’s also very much a team effort,” Levinsohn says. “The people taking this class are grown-ups. Some of these students have a lot of experience in the developing world. Most have already proven themselves in complicated environments.”

Wazhma Sadat YC ’14, a Yale Law School student, is serving as the course’s teaching assistant. “Wazhma has, herself, helped establish businesses in her native Afghanistan,” Levinsohn says. “She brings tremendous experience to the project having ‘been there, done that’ herself.”

Vera Lo ’18 says that the course epitomizes Yale SOM’s mission to educate leaders for business and society. “I’m motivated by the potential impact this could have on the lives of the people in Hope Village,” she says.  “We have an ambitious goal, but I came to SOM to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself, and I couldn’t have asked for a better class to do so.”

Xavi Curtis ’18 also appreciates the challenge. “Launching a business outside of Mogadishu without ever stepping foot there seems preposterous, and may very well turn out to be, but the ultimate goal of bringing jobs to Somalia, a country that desperately needs them, is the type of challenge that the Yale community should be tackling.”

The course has its roots in a conversation last year between Deqo Mohamed and Gabriela Hernández Cardoso, when both women were Yale World Fellows. Mohamed, a Somali-born doctor, is CEO of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, which oversees Hope Village; her mother, Dr. Hawa Abdi, founded the village more than 20 years ago. Hernández is president and CEO of GE Mexico. Also an attorney, she worked in the Mexican government before joining GE.

“Deqo shared her experiences and her life with me,” Hernández says. “Deqo and her mother have gone through the worst of times, and they’re still there and doing a great thing. It’s extremely powerful and inspiring.”

But both Mohamed and Hernández agreed that employment is the critical next step for Hope Village residents. “The model of living off international aid is not sustainable, and it’s not something to strive for,” Hernández says. “We believe in the dignity and purpose of people. We imagined harnessing the brainpower of some of the brightest students at Yale and asking them to devise a business plan that could work in Somalia.”

Hernández shared their thoughts with Levinsohn, who agreed to lead the course. “We’re all in agreement on the huge challenge that this is,” Hernández says.

Mohamed is consulting with students through a Skype link from Somalia. “I’m helping out by being on the ground and feeding them information,” she says. “I am very excited to have this opportunity to spread the information about what we’re doing in Hope Village. My goal is to build a truly sustainable business.”