Penn State Smeal MBA students work cross-functionally on social business project

June 16, 2014

A team of Penn State Smeal MBA students spent their final semester in the program working with entrepreneur Sisay Shimelis on an aspect of his ambitious project to improve the quality of life for Ethiopians.

Shimelis, the founder, president, and CEO of NutrAfrica, seeks to lower the cost of the food staple, injera, for Ethiopians while introducing production methods that are both socially and environmentally sustainable. Injera is a sourdough flatbread-like food made from the East African grain teff, and it makes up a significant portion of many Ethiopians’ caloric consumption. Traditionally, Ethiopian women and children cook the food over an open fire, which leads to respiratory problems—and is also causing deforestation in the region.

A key part of Shimelis’ overall business strategy is to export injera to the American market—and that’s where the MBA students come in. As part of the spring 2014 Applied Professional Experience (APEX), second-year MBA students Peter Chamberlain, Elizabeth Combs, Michele Harrison, Syed Khazi and Ian McSpadden worked as a team to create a strategy for expanding injera’s presence in the American market.

A capstone component of the Penn State Smeal MBA Program, APEX links teams of students in their final semesters with companies and organizations looking to address specific business challenges.

The social and environmental aspects of the project were what initially drew Harrison to participate: “I have a strong interest in social enterprise,” she said. “And I wanted to work for a smaller company where our project could have the greatest impact.”

The team was tasked with developing the strategy and corresponding implementation plan -- including distribution channels, supply chain logistics, pricing model, web-enabled order processing, and more -- for bringing the NutrAfrica’s injera product to the U.S. market from its manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.

“Our hope is, through projects like this, we can work to break down the walls between the colleges and provide our students with cross-functional experiences.”

-- Dave Lenze, Director, Penn State Smeal MBA APEX Program

“Our primary goal was to provide Sisay with an implementable plan to use in the next steps of his company,” said Harrison.

The ability to pay for injera is three times greater in North America than in Ethiopia, according to Harrison, so the U.S. market is key to NutrAfrica’s profitability.

The team’s first task was to investigate the market. Their recommendation to Shimelis was to gain traction in the North American market through existing Ethiopian diaspora.

Because much of the product’s success hinges upon getting it into the hands of Ethiopian grocery stores and restaurants, NutrAfrica needed an IT strategy—including a website that could provide order processing capabilities.

For this task, Penn State Smeal MBA students enlisted some consultants of their own. They worked closely with a class of undergraduate students, led by Irene Petrick, senior lecturer in the Penn State College of Information Science and Technology. Through this aspect of the project, MBA students gained the experience of not only serving as consultants to a business but also working with consultants—the undergraduate students.

“This project has been an amazing experience of seeing how everything ties together cross-functionally."

-- Peter Chamberlain, Class of 2014, Penn State Smeal MBA Program

“The IST students worked over several classroom sessions with MBA team members on creating an IT strategy that would support NutrAfrica’s entry into the diaspora community,” said Dave Lenze, director of the APEX program. “Our hope is, through projects like this, we can work to break down the walls between the colleges and provide our students with cross-functional experiences.”

The MBA student team presented their recommendations for NutrAfrica’s North American expansion—including the IT strategy developed by their IST colleagues—at the end of April.

“This project has been an amazing experience of seeing how everything ties together cross-functionally,” said Chamberlain.

“This project provided students with a international business problem that encompassed everything from marketing to supply chain to business model and strategy,” said Lenze. “It was a great example of a real-world, messy, cross-functional business problem that we want our students to know how to approach when they enter the professional world after graduation.”

NutrAfrica has a number of other ongoing collaborations across the University through Shimels’ connections. He is working on injera product and process development with Greg Ziegler, professor of food science in the College of Agricultural Sciences. With Jeff Catchmark, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, there are teams addressing machine design and sustainable packaging. And Jeffery Erickson, associate clinical professor of law at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law, has led a sustainable development law clinic that looked at the legal and regulatory issues facing the firm.

About the Penn State Smeal MBA Program
The internationally ranked residential Penn State Smeal MBA Program positions students from around the world for their future careers. The two-year program, based on the University Park campus, begins with a focus on business fundamentals. Through summer internships with top companies and concentration opportunities in areas such as finance, marketing, and supply chain management, students then personalize their Smeal MBA experiences to align with their career aspirations. Learn more at

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Last Updated June 18, 2014