Real-world MBA elective teaches invaluable business lessons

Developing a business plan for one cancer care centre to serve eight African countries? Welcome to a one-of-a-kind MBA elective offered at UAlberta.


During an intensive 10-day trip to Ethiopia this past January, nine MBA students faced unexpectedly hard emotional and business truths as they conducted in-the-field research to create a business plan to develop a multimillion-dollar cancer centre.

They saw young children, mothers and elderly people in crowded hospitals—many with advanced stage cancer tumours—waiting to see one of four oncologists serving the entire country of Ethiopia.

“It was really hard to see all the late-stage cancer cases,” said Diane Turner, one of the nine hand-selected students who participated in this year’s new School of Business elective: Frontiers of Business Initiative.

Discovering how different reality is from the classroom is the point of the unique business elective, said Emily Block, who brought the immersive project-based course to the U of A in 2016.

The cancer centre the students were developing a business plan for will serve eight countries in the East African region, where it’s projected there will be 1.28 million new cancer cases and 735,000 cancer deaths annually by 2030.

“We thought we’d included most everything going over there in our preliminary business plan,” said Turner. “But there were things we didn’t even think of. Like there not being enough of the foreign currency available to buy the machines needed, or a lack of basic sanitation.”

The students recently completed their 170-page plan and relayed their experiences to the Business Advisory Council. The document covered the gamut from risk analysis to revenue strategies and contained recommendations for cancer care prevention, research, diagnosis, treatment, palliative care and drug manufacturing. It also accounts for operational capital development, clinical trials, HR strategies, risk analysis, marketing strategies, stakeholder analysis, regulatory compliance, board development and more.

“It was an amazing lesson in adjusting plans to the real environment and it’s the difference between any other thing you’ll do in business school,” said Turner. “It’s taking the learning and actually doing, and that’s a missing step in so many MBA programs.”

Block said, “The goal of this elective and future ones is to challenge MBAs to combine and develop effective solutions in frontier markets, which may be international or closer to home. Only one other business school in North America offers this kind of hands-on experience in a business leadership course.”

She is currently searching for next year’s project and welcomes leads from the community.