Different worlds, same challenges

Alumni bring new perspective to the School of Management's annual Ghana program

As Sarah Tanbakuchi, BA ’09, JD/MBA ’14, technology manager at M&T Bank, sat across a table in Ghana from her counterparts at Barclays Africa, she was struck most by the common experiences they shared.

Despite the ocean separating their companies and countries, she and the Barclays staff members faced common challenges: retaining top-notch talent, keeping up with ever-changing technology, and evolving company culture while staying true to its values.

“The things that keep us up at night, and the things we’re excited about, were all so similar,” the UB alumna says. “It was a bit like looking into a mirror.”

The meeting was part of Tanbakuchi’s experience during the UB School of Management’s Ghana program, which included a two-week experiential learning trip to the West African nation in January. She and Samantha Podlas, MBA/MSW ’15, were the first alumni to participate in the school’s growing array of global programs.

“I’ve always appreciated that people from different cultures are more alike than we are different,” Tanbakuchi says. “On this trip, I focused on the similarities in conducting business between our two countries.”

During their time in Ghana, the two alumnae, as well as the 25 students and faculty member who participated in the program, visited several companies and met with business leaders, including an all-woman panel of entrepreneurs. Again and again, they noticed the commonalities between the U.S. and Ghana—and how friendly and warm everyone they met seemed to be.

“You will never find a more welcoming place than Ghana,” says Podlas, who will earn her JD from the UB School of Law in May. “For me, a big highlight of the trip was having dinner twice at individuals’ homes. We danced, played ping-pong and had a beautiful meal. For someone to invite a group of almost 30 people they don’t know into their home is just incredible.”

Dorothy Siaw-Asamoah, faculty director of the School of Management’s global programs, has long hoped to integrate alumni into these programs to enrich the experience and differentiate the school’s global opportunities from other universities, which typically offer separate trips for students and alumni.

“Students always benefit from interacting with alumni on campus, but global programs take that engagement to the next level,” Siaw-Asamoah says. “When they’re abroad, students and alumni are on an even playing field as they learn from one another and experience a new culture together, creating a meaningful experience for everyone.”

Participants on the trip were divided into two groups: a medical team that provided basic health care to more than 1,500 children and adults, and a second team focused on economic development and education, which included both alumnae.

For Podlas, the experience was a balanced mix of corporate visits, service opportunities and cultural sites. One of her fondest memories was helping to teach a two-day menstrual health curriculum, developed by MBA/MPH student Danielle Vazquez, at a school in Accra.

“That was my favorite part, seeing all of those kids smiling and so thrilled to see us,” Podlas says. “We had expected about 80 girls, but the first day alone we saw at least 150. I struggle with adaptability, but that experience—and the trip as a whole—showed me that I can be flexible when things don’t go as planned.”

By bringing together students and alumni, participants were able to learn from one another and the perspective each of them brought to the program. Both alumnae were also able to draw parallels from Ghana to their experiences as students on the annual UB MBA China trip.

“At the end of each session, we would reflect and tackle some challenging topics around race, gender and culture, and I was continually stuck by the thoughtfulness of the discussion,” Tanbakuchi says. “The students had a fresh, creative perspective, and I hope I was able to bring a unique perspective as a business practitioner to our visits.”

After a successful first trip with alumni participants, Siaw-Asamoah plans to include School of Management graduates in future programs—and her inaugural participants hope their fellow alumni consider coming along.

“This type of program is why I’m so proud to be a School of Management alum,” Tanbakuchi says. “The Ghana trip represents the school’s commitment to producing future business leaders who approach business from a global and diversity mindset. It was an incredible real-world learning opportunity for everyone.”

For more information on programs and alumni opportunities during the 2019-20 academic year, contact Dorothy Siaw-Asamoah at dasamoah@buffalo.edu.