``Business school students usually travel or frolic around Europe'' during the summer after graduation, says Phil Grabfield, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in June. But Mr. Grabfield and eight fellow classmates decided to do something different before starting careers in investment banking and consulting in the fall. ``We had been lucky in everything - schools, jobs - and we wanted to give something back to society for all we had gained,'' Grabfield says. So after exploring many different projects for volunteer work, the new MBAs decided to join relief efforts in Dominica, a tiny impoverished island in the Caribbean. Working with the indigenous Carib Indian population, they constructed a soybean processing kitchen and rebuilt a fisherman's warehouse destroyed by a landslide.
The volunteer MBAs are eager to dispel the stereotype of the MBA as having lost touch with others in pursuit of a high-paying job. Following the lead of members of the Wharton Class of 1986, who biked across the Himalayas and China to raise money for the handicapped, they sought a similarly charitable project. Group leader Guilia Fitzpatrick, referring to the students' concern, said that ``it is easy to get caught up in the MBA cycle. ... The month in Dominica provided a different perspective on life.''
The MBAs raised $16,000 from corporations to fund the project. But, under the supervision of Carib tribesman, they did not end up using their prestigious business-school training. Instead, they worked in building construction. Carib building is traditionally done communally, with tribe members spending time after their own private work is finished. As a result, the warehouse built in a month with the help of the MBAs would probably have taken a year or two to finish without them.
Dominica has been the site of numerous relief efforts over the years, including programs by the Peace Corps and Save the Children. It is one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries, with a per capita income of $440 a year.
Plenty-USA, the Oakland, Calif.-based international group that sponsored the MBAs, has been in Dominica with Plenty-Canada for four years working on small-scale agriculture and nutritional education.
Since poverty on the island has restricted the standard diet mainly to starches and fruits, Plenty sought to develop the soybean industry. The MBAs hope that the soy processing kitchen will be used to better feed the Caribs and, in the future, to set up an industry based on soy products. Several of the volunteers plan to work in the United States to find market contacts for Carib businesses.
The Wharton students hope to foster a tradition of volunteerism among future MBA classes. The group will return to its alma mater in the fall to give a presentation on the work and encourage students to do similar projects after graduation.