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My Summer with MercyCorps Mongolia

Location: Ulaan Baatar (UB), Mongolia
Brief Description of Summer Project:
I worked as a project consultant with the USDA-funded Rural Agribusiness Support Program (RASP), which supports the diversification and expansion of rural businesses in 11 aimags (provinces) that are critical to Mongolia’s agriculture sector. My role was to review and improve the project financing and loan disbursement process for the new, larger scale projects, and to provide training and business planning tools for the rural business officers.

What made you interested in taking an internship position?

I have always been interested in travel and working overseas. I had traveled a lot, but never worked in a developing country, or in international development. It would have been difficult for me to switch to this field while I worked in consulting/finance, so it was not until I came to HBS that I was able to look at this field more closely. Once at HBS, I attended a student panel presentation by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative (SE), in which an EC student argued that taking a placement in the not-for-profit (NFP) world, would be a good way to test one’s interest in the field. I agreed with him and decided to pursue an international development experience more aggressively.

I was also keen to work for an organization in which my input would be valued. As a MercyCorps intern, the businesses that I helped to fund ensured the livelihoods of many nomadic herders, by creating a local processor to sell to.

What was the most rewarding aspect of your summer experience?

I think it was the opportunity to spend time in a totally different culture. It would be foolish to say that in nine weeks you can truly understand another culture, but I really enjoyed spending time with the Mongolian people and learning to appreciate their lifestyle. By visiting and working alongside regional businesses I began to uncover a more interesting side to the country than I would have as a mere tourist. Meeting and working with the herders on the Mongolian steppe was a real honor. It was quite humbling to see how these herders were so generous and welcoming to strangers. Each herder group I visited treated me as a guest, and I was warmly welcomed with a curd, horse milk and vodka!

What was the biggest challenge you faced this summer?

1. Coming to terms with the fact that the red carpet welcome was not for me, but the Mongolian President, with whom I had to share my flight into Mongolia.

2. Drinking fermented horse’s milk without wincing – you accept it from your host with an upturned open right hand, and with your left hand touching your right elbow. You then proceed to blow the bowl of milk, not as part of the ritual as I thought, but to push away the hair and other flotsam, then you drink deeply. The bowl is handed back to the host who refills it, enabling him to know exactly how much you have been able to drink. To most westerners, the drink tastes like really sour milk.

3. Learning to like yaks. On one trip to the north, we drank yak milk, had yak soup for breakfast, took the yak powered cart across the river to work and got yak knitted hats to wear. I smelled only marginally better than a yak by the end of the day. Obviously all this added to the charm of working there!

4. Not being able to communicate without a translator. As I did not understand the nuances of the Mongolian body language, I frequently felt that I had unknowingly upset one of my clients. My translator had to reassure me that this frosty response was part of the Mongolian way of doing business, as was the tradition of sharing a shot of vodka after late evening meetings.

What was your background prior to HBS?

My undergraduate degree was in engineering, and I worked briefly in industry before working in consulting in London and the US. After that I worked for a couple of years in tech venture capital, before coming to business school. In Mongolia, I was surprised how applicable the skills I had obtained before and during school were in the NFP sector.

Why did you pursue a social enterprise summer fellowship?

The financial support I received helped cover my living expenses and travel. Having these expenses taken care of gave me access to organizations that might have interesting summer projects, but no financial means to support me. The fellowship also provided a forum for me and several other students to share our ideas, past experiences, and future career goals.

How has your summer experience influenced your post-MBA career goals?

It has really opened my eyes to the world of international development. One advantage of working in the field is the ease in which you can make contacts with others working in international development. The ex-pat community in UB was relatively small, but very active, so I met a great deal of people during the various weekend trips, or evening sporting events arranged throughout the summer. This gave me an opportunity to learn more about different organizations that I might like to work for including the World Bank, Soros Foundation, USAID and ADB.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing an
internship/career in this sector?

Getting a job in international development can be difficult for students without previous work experience in the area. Potential employers often look for relevant, on the ground experience and for the ability to deal with the unique demands foreign placements place on the individual.

Nevertheless, I feel that the SE summer internship fellowship program is a good way for students to gain practical on the ground experience, with little financial risk to the student or host company.

The SE group at HBS is a great resource for finding what opportunities are available, understanding what different companies do and generally researching the huge range of organizations that work in the NFP and international development field. I would definitely advise interested students to attend the seminars in which ECs talk about their summer experience – it was what really spurred me to act.

Editor’s Note: More information about MercyCorps can be found at www.mercycorps.org. Currently MercyCorps does not have a general open enrollment process, but they do work with certain universities (including Harvard) to place students in summer internships. Next semester they expect to post directions on how to apply for an internship through their online recruiting system.

November 15, 2004
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