Microsoft Sponsors First Ever Eller Social Impact Consulting Project

July 26, 2017

First-year Graduate Students Work with Microsoft Client Advisors to Increase Internet Availability Worldwide

Microsoft Sponsors First Ever Eller Social Impact Consulting Project

Business consulting projects have traditionally provided first-year full-time Eller graduate students with an opportunity to work directly with prestigious companies to develop significant business solutions. However, a pilot project proposed by Microsoft this spring had a different goal: to develop substantial social impact.   

As an integral part of its corporate mission, Microsoft has committed to working with local communities around the world to bring broadband connectivity to some of the 4 billion global citizens who are not currently online. While the goal is simple, attaining it is less straightforward.

To help achieve its mission, the global company turned to the Eller College of Management. Microsoft has worked successfully with Eller Business Consulting Projects for seven years, so it was a natural choice for the company to initiate the first ever Eller Social Impact Consulting Project.

“The question was, how would you recommend bringing internet access to a remote region, such as Mesetas in central Colombia?” said Rahul Joshi, Network Planning Program Manager at Microsoft. “What would it take to have a successful pilot that we could learn from and apply elsewhere?”

To tackle this special challenge, Business Consulting Executive Director Sandy Kenny brought together five MBA students: Carlos Castellanos, BS Industrial Engineering; Ankita Chaudhari, BE Electronics and Telecommunications; Sahil Dadwal, BE Computer Science; Shawn Davis, BS Finance; and Ankita Mishra, BE Chemical Engineering. Eller Business Consulting teams are made up of three to six second-semester students selected by Kenny for their applicable skills and interests. While this team was strong on technical and business skills, she said, they also found value in working on a project that could help lift people out of poverty.

“We loved the opportunity to find out how technology can assist underserved populations,” said Mishra, who was the team lead.

Located east of the Andes Mountains near a rain forest, Mesetas is similar in geographic size to the state of Rhode Island, but with a population of only 11,000, most of whom make a living through small-scale agriculture, such as coffee growing. Mesetas was highly impacted by the 52-year civil war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, which ended in a ceasefire deal last year. Though the government has been providing internet access to the country’s poorest metropolitan areas via a fiber-optic cable network, the MBA consulting team realized that the challenging terrain, dispersed population, and poor infrastructure around Mesetas meant the remote region could not be physically connected that way.

The team worked to validate the technological feasibility and positive social impact of using TV white space (TVWS), the blocks of unused broadcast spectrum between assigned television channels, to bring wireless internet to Mesetas. TVWS uses a radio transmitter on a fiber node and a radio receiver at the point of access to convert the TVWS signal into a Wi-Fi signal that can be used by computers, tablets, and phones.

Under the guidance of Eller faculty, the team worked closely with Joshi and other Microsoft representatives to create a TVWS plan that was customized for the region’s unique geographic, socioeconomic, and political situation. When it was clear the team needed to talk with other experts, Joshi connected the students with Mary Fifield, a consultant who specializes in international organizational development, and with several nongovernmental organizations and coffee growers’ associations in Colombia. 

“Microsoft has been a great partner,” said Associate Professor of Management and Organizations Joseph Broschak, who was a faculty advisor on the project along with Diza Sauers, Professor of Practice in Business Communication. “The number of times they met with the team and the connections and resources they provided to the students was a remarkable. Their commitment to our students and to this social impact project was impressive.”

Though Microsoft has a long history of working with Eller Business Consulting Projects, this social impact pilot project was Joshi’s first time serving as a consulting team advisor. He originally asked the team to do a case study to determine how to implement TVWS for coffee growers and schools in Mesetas, but he quickly realized that he had underestimated the students.

“By the middle of the project, it was clear they were they were hitting a home run,” he said. “So, in standard Microsoft fashion, we pushed the team to help us scale approach.”

Joshi asked the students to use what they had learned in creating the plan for Mesetas to come up with a process that Microsoft could use to determine the feasibility of implementing TVWS and broadband technologies in other remote areas.

“Microsoft has datacenters around the world and every one of them presents an opportunity to connect more people to the benefits of technology,” Joshi said.

In a final presentation in May, the team explained its research and recommendations for bringing TVWS to Mesetas and shared the many ways its implementation could amplify social impact in the region: increased access to technology for residents, enriched educational opportunities for children, and for individual coffee growers, improved crop management and easier communication with other farmers and buyers. 

“We’re trying to break down physical barriers by building virtual connectivity,” Castellanos said, who was the team’s data manager.

Joshi and Natalie Eisner, a Microsoft engineer who has been involved in the project, came to the presentation in person, and a representative from Microsoft Colombia connected via Skype to listen in.

“It's a real feather in your cap when Microsoft Colombia dials in because they need to hear what you guys think,” Joshi said.  

The presentation concluded with the team delivering a decision tree analysis that Microsoft can use to determine the feasibility of implementing TVWS anywhere. Joshi thanked the five team members for going the extra mile and shared how Microsoft planned to build on their work.

“This was a lot of extra effort on your part and I really appreciate that,” he said. “We will include this thinking in operationalizing this framework at a global scale for Microsoft.”

After wrapping up, Mishra added that the team had one more call planned with the NGOs they had been working with in Colombia to update them on their final recommendations. Joshi was incredibly impressed with the students’ commitment and professionalism.

“I started working on the project with MBA students, and I finished working with a team of consultants,” he said. “Talk about ownership. This is not a school project to them anymore. This is real.”

Mishra agreed that the team united around their shared desire to produce a plan that could have real global impact.

“We started this project as a course, but it became our baby,” she said. “We worked on it night and day. It was a great experience.”

This illustrates the purpose of Eller Business Consulting Projects, which are a core component of the Eller experience, Kenny said. While the projects have traditionally been an opportunity for MBA and MS MIS students, they will soon include all of Eller Master’s Programs.

“These consulting projects provide students with amazing, real-world learning experiences,” she said. “Microsoft projects are always wonderful because it’s clear that they want students to stretch and learn.”

With the social impact pilot being such a success, Joshi has already spoken with Kenny about a couple more social impact initiatives for the next round of Eller Business Consulting Projects.

“We plan to deepen our commitment to the program,” he said. “We're getting valuable tangible benefits that we're taking back to the operations of our company. There are professional consultants that you don't end up doing that with. That's a testament to the quality of the Eller MBA program.”