Helping Entrepreneurs Grow: MBA Students Present Business Plans to Greek Businesses

Gabelli School of Business offers real-world study abroad program for MBA students working with business owners in Athens.

By Jill Rodrigues '05
Students pose in front of Parthenon

ATHENS, GREECE – After spending a few days in Athens, a group of Master of Business Administration students who had traveled there to work with a Greek company realized that their prior business proposal was not a good fit in this different culture and landscape. Their plan needed to be scrapped and started over with a fresh perspective now that they were immersed in the country.

It was the sort of thing they had learned might happen in their International Business course. But reading about it in a textbook and discussing it in class was no substitute for experiencing it firsthand and taking initiative to pivot and adapt their plans.

In April, Roger Williams University MBA students participated in an experiential study abroad program consulting with and providing operations and marketing proposals to a variety of small business owners in Greece. RWU’s Mario J. Gabelli School of Business partnered with the American College of Greece’s Alba Graduate Business School on this experiential learning opportunity, connecting the students with the Greek business owners through the school.

The students worked in groups with three entrepreneurial companies, researching the enterprises and their industries (tourism, personal transportation, and beauty products), meeting with the CEOs over Zoom while in their MBA classes at the Providence campus to learn about their company’s challenges and hopes for growth and then meeting again in person at the start of their week in Athens.

At first, the group working with Kineo, an electric bike and scooter startup, had planned to propose a rental strategy similar to successful ones in Providence and New York City, but they quickly saw that wouldn’t work in Athens. “Whatever challenges we had assumed were based on our cultural perspectives from the United States and Rhode Island,” said Anthony Soares ’21, M’22, a double Hawk who graduated with a Bachelor of Finance and recently received his MBA. “It wasn’t until we touched down in Greece, we were able to fully understand what this company does and the challenges before them.”

Kineo feetLuckily for them, their sharp business minds found inspiration laying right at their feet. That’s where they spied quirky marketing ploys – stickers on the sidewalks meant to attract pedestrians and direct them physically to a restaurant or shop. If people were walking on foot, the students figured, they might be enticed to rent a bike or scooter instead. Part of their pitch to the Kineo business owner later that week included using QR-coded sidewalk stickers, along with expanding company branding on their products and QR codes right on the bikes so people seeing one in use can get directly to the rental information.

“We were hoping these company owners really took what we were offering them as value, rather than thinking we were just here for credit,” said Soares, a Wilbraham, Mass., resident. “And that was one of the coolest things about this experience. During our presentation, I kept looking at the CEO and he was nodding his head and taking diligent notes.”

MBA Entrepreneurship Program in Greece

Gabelli School of Business offers real-world study abroad program focused on entrepreneurship for MBA students working with business owners in Athens, Greece.

Amanda Kirkland’s group worked with kleesto, which provides tour operator software solutions. Their objective was to grow the company’s client base through marketing. But in a Greek way.

“The company wanted an organic approach – not Americanized, in-your-face marketing. It was challenging and we had to step back, because it wasn’t marketing we really thought of,” said Kirkland, who completed dual JD/MBA degrees this May. “Once we were in Greece, we got a better feel for the culture and it’s definitely very friendly, where people often talk to each other and pass on recommendations by word of mouth.”

They designed a marketing approach that emphasized the “personal part” of the company’s client relations. The students also pulled in the company’s use of blue across its entire brand, from website to social channels to help build brand awareness – and a week after the presentation, the CEO emailed them about their new logo, which had the same blue the students had used in the marketing plan.

“It was awesome to see a change, even a small one but it was something we saw right away,” said Kirkland, of Kearney, Neb. “We were hoping to offer the company another way to look at things. We presented foundational ideas that we hoped they would take back with them and build on to make it more customized to what they liked and wanted.”

Students visit beachSusan McTiernan, Dean of the Gabelli School of Business, and Jay Oliver, Director of the MBA Program, designed the Greece study abroad program, a signature international business experience that is built into every MBA degree, although a temporary hiatus was necessary during Covid-19. They traveled with the students and observed the group presentations to the CEOs.

“This group of students was already very focused and high performing. But by the end of the week, they possessed a new level of maturity, having this hands-on experience working with clients and under conditions that were more complicated than usual because they were working with clients in a culture they weren’t accustomed to,” said Dean McTiernan. “And I am so pleased to say they rose to the occasion. It was one of my proudest moments as dean to see how professional, composed and prepared they were. The feedback from the three companies was very positive – one business owner asked if the students could move to Greece to help with their business.”

Oliver noted how intensely the students prepared before the trip and continued to work right up until presentation day. “The students were in this so much. They really cared about how deep to take the work, their roles as consultants to these companies, and going the extra mile to back up their recommendations and get these companies thinking. In just a short amount of time, I believe they put each one of these companies on a different path.”

This experiential learning opportunity served to pilot a developing study-abroad partnership between the Gabelli School of Business and the Alba Graduate Business School that will formally take place in Spring 2023 and Spring 2024. The next two cohorts of MBA students will act as crisis management consultants to Greek businesses, providing strategies for companies to mitigate and pivot during unexpected challenges.

According to Soares, this kind of real-world experience will be invaluable as he and the next MBA graduates build their professional careers.

“A question about whether I have international experience will likely be brought up in a corporate interview in the next four years, and I can say I have had that experience working in the global sphere and working with global teams,” Soares said. “A real-world experience where I’ve had to utilize my knowledge in innovative ways and to understand that you have to mold different strategies to different cultures, because not every place is the same.”