The demands of his fast-growing technology company had surpassed James Bowen's education, and he wanted to go back to school to fill in the gaps.
Security expert Tyler Davis wanted to sharpen entrepreneurial skills. And Liliana Bronner, a health education manager sorting through a maze of industry changes, also sought a leadership boost touted by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's executive master of business administration program.
But little did the trio know when signing up for the 18-month regimen that their most powerful lessons would come during an overseas assignment that had them sleeping under mosquito nets and working amid children with severe disabilities in one of the world's poorest economies, Tanzania.
While other teams in the program explored a recycling technology in Japan and analyzed the India market for Midwest clients, the Tanzania group studied seamstresses and jewelry makers who were stigmatized because they had children with disabilities.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd end up in small-town Africa,” said Bowen, co-founder of Lincoln-based Five Nines Technology Group.
Said Davis: “It was transformational. You think of business challenges with a different perspective.”
While an international research project has long been a highlight of the 40-year-old program for executives, the Tanzania trip in several ways was unprecedented, and director Bill Swanson said he hopes to integrate the model in future training of Omaha's business leaders.
One aspect setting the Africa experience apart, said Swanson, was its “social responsibility” focus that had been missing in the curriculum. The Tanzania team was charged with examining and improving the business structure of a network of handicraft operations run by parents and caretakers of children with disabilities.
Local companies, Swanson said, increasingly are affected by social and economic challenges of global neighbors, and budding business leaders should be aware and better prepared to reach out and help.
“If we're training these people to be the executives and business people of tomorrow, part of that is, 'What do you need to do to give back?' ” he said.
As part of their capstone, or culminating projects, UNO's EMBA students are paired with a company grappling with a challenge and produce recommendations akin to a $250,000 consultant's report, said David Volkman, a UNO professor.
Typically, teams of five students are paired with a Fortune 500 or other profit-driven company that wants to increase sales, and the corporate client picks up the tab for international field work.
In the Tanzania case, though, a team aligned with Mosaic, which is a not-for-profit organization based in Omaha that serves people with disabilities and their families, including those in the Tanzanian city of Moshi. In another atypical twist, UNO paid the team's traveling expenses of $32,000.
Swanson said working conditions also set apart the Tanzania project from the three other international research projects conducted by students in the most recent class.
Unlike other teams who stayed in luxury hotels and were plugged into data 24-7, the Tanzania group slept under netting in a hostel, at one point averted a dangerous civil disturbance and had spotty access to Internet and electricity.
Two of the team members' own children have severe disabilities, which motivated them to volunteer for the Tanzania project.
“It came down to, 'My gosh, this could be Ryan over there,'” said team member Phil Taylor. “It felt like it was meant to be.”
Regardless of their projects, though, all teams shared the common goal of improving a business.
In Tanzania, the UNO team was to recommend how to improve profits in caregiver cooperatives so they can contribute more to the cost of centers where their children with disabilities receive daily services.
Mosaic and its partner organizations support the cooperatives in part by helping to sell their products. Mostly handmade purses, bags and jewelry, the crafts are sold primarily in Nebraska to Mosaic supporters. Mosaic also provides financial support to the 11 Moshi area care centers for children with disabilities.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to beefing up business production, Tanzania team members said, was the nonprofit Mosaic's focus on service and advocacy over making money.
And while the team recommended multiple changes — including consolidation of production sites and more aggressive and targeted marketing strategies — Mosaic's Kelly Lytle explained that any change would be rolled out over time, “as we have to take into consideration cultural differences.”
Still, the team members said they gained valuable perspective from trying to balance the human and business sides of a nonprofit entity.
“It reinforces to our students things we can do as a community to better the world,” Swanson said.
Bowen, who runs a 75-person firm but had never traveled abroad, said he used to think in terms of the U.S. vs. other countries. After visiting Tanzania and, on an earlier UNO trip, China, he views the people as largely the same.
“It's the government and economies that are different,” he said.
Bronner, a clinical education manager at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, also traveled to both countries. She said she appreciated the opportunity to contrast governmental barriers to starting a business and found that entrepreneurial spirit was universal.
“A person really passionate about moving their business forward is the same no matter where you find them,” she said.
Davis, a security officer at UNO, echoed the sentiment of others that the Tanzania trip deepened the commitment to “give back.”
Davis continues to work with Mosaic on a project to develop fire safety information and to raise funds for solar-powered lanterns for families with children with disabilities in Tanzania. That effort began when he learned of a child with disabilities who burned to death when a kerosene lamp was knocked over in his house.
Bronner remains in contact with Tanzanian friends through Facebook.
Bowen has spoken at Mosaic fundraisers. He said the lingering relationship is unusual, as most teams sign agreements not to talk about their findings.
“I can stay as involved as I want, and will know years later if our report made a difference.”