“I see business as engineering on a much larger scale.”

Tawanda Sibanda has “always been interested in creating valuable things,” he says. “Initially, my approach was technical – building things. But over time, I didn’t feel the social impact was as great as I would’ve liked. Now, I see business as engineering on a much larger scale. You’re creating lasting value with a long-term strategy and mission.”

After nearly five years in engineering, Tawanda felt a need for general management skills and believed an MBA would be the best way to acquire them. “I want to return to Africa one day,” he says. “How can I equip myself to help, particularly in Zimbabwe?” Seeking answers, Tawanda came to the Africa Business Conference at HBS in 2008. “That was the lightbulb moment. I met so many intelligent people interested in Africa, sparking my thinking around business as a means for social movement. I thought to myself, ‘This is where I want to be. This is what I want to study.’”

Challenging, but rewarding

“I thought I had the whole diversity thing down,” Tawanda says. After all, he grew up in Moscow where his father was the Zimbabwean ambassador to the Soviet Union. His mother is a British citizen of Jamaican descent. “What could HBS teach me about diversity? But now I’ve met people who’ve confronted me with issues and ideas I hadn’t fully considered before. I’ve had candid discussions with Saudi students about the pros and cons of centralized leadership. The LGBT students in my classes have opened my eyes to the challenges they face in the classroom and in the workplace. I’ve even been to a rifle range with a former Green Beret. I had never fired a gun before, but I felt comfortable because I completely trusted my section mate.”

“Even though I had read about the case method,” says Tawanda, “it didn’t really hit me until I became a student here myself. As an engineer, I’m not used to articulating my opinions. But in classes, I’m forced to take positions on complex, controversial topics – and I need to have reasons to back them up. Sometimes, I’m not sure where I stand, so it’s challenging – yet very rewarding.”

Going full circle

Now that he’s at HBS, Tawanda has gone full circle and returned to the Africa Business Conference, this time as conference co-chair, “as a way for me to give back.” Tawanda also returned to Africa as part of the Rwanda IXP. “The coordinators invited me to sit with President Kagame, not only an important African leader, but one of the most successful. We talked for thirty, forty minutes about politics, corruption in African governments, even his son’s friendship with Ben Affleck.”

Now Tawanda is working on a start-up with HBS colleagues and a team of professionals from Zimbabwe. “It’s called ‘Mukela,’ a Zula word that means ‘welcome,’” he explains. “It’s an online travel accommodations site – think of it as a Hotels.com focused exclusively on Africa.” Tawanda and his colleagues entered Mukela in the Business Plan Contest; in his EC year, he hopes to make it the focus of a field study.

“With this business or another,” he says, “I want to go back to Africa one day and employ Africans. We’ll show the world that Africa can compete with the best.”