Tough-love MBA elective teaches the art of failure

Nine students travel to Ethiopia to research business plan for a state-of-the-art, Alberta-inspired cancer care centre.


The University of Alberta’s new MBA elective will test even the most ambitious entrepreneurs. Their mission: develop a business case for Ethiopia’s first ever cancer research clinic—for real.

Nine students are now in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, for two weeks to continue developing a viable business plan for an unprecedented, multimillion-dollar regional cancer centre of excellence for eight African countries, by the end of April.

The trip will allow the students to do research on the ground in the crisis-besieged country, which has an insufficient health-care system for preventing and treating non-communicable diseases like cancer. It’s expected to lead to radical changes to the initial draft business plan they completed last semester after studying Alberta’s cancer care facilities and models.

“One of the biggest benefits of this elective is that students will fail before they succeed,” said Emily Block, a new Alberta School of Business professor who has taught problem-solving and leadership in frontier markets to the U.S. Army Special Forces. “The real world is inherently complex, and there’s value in having our students test ideas, learn quickly and rebuild ideas in the most uncertain environments in the world.”

Block has brought with her to the U of A the goal of generating an immersive global project every semester for the new Frontiers of Business Initiative elective, available to hand-selected MBA students seeking an intense experience in business leadership, and a chance to combine business and development in a way that might prove effective in frontier markets where traditional investment doesn’t move the needle.

“The goal of this initiative is to develop a case for a thriving, state-of-the-art centre that includes prevention, research, diagnosis, treatment, palliative care and drug manufacturing," said Block.

Elective student Diane Turner said she's already learned she can’t gauge her success by whether she fails or succeeds, but by how comfortable she is thinking strategically in an ambiguous situation.

“It’s one of the greatest things I could learn and it’s very tangible. It’s an honour to learn and serve for such an important, complex opportunity,” she said.

According to GLOBOCAN 2008 numbers in the East African region, there were 715,000 new cases of cancer and 542,000 cancer deaths. Based on these numbers, projections for 2030 will see an increase in the incidence of cancer to approximately 1.28 million, and 735,000 cancer deaths.

“This project isn’t about changing the world, but rather, it's an opportunity to change a trajectory,” added Block. “Whether this centre will be built comes down to political will and capital. But the ways in which our students build and ask questions, apply and analyze data, and have influence over its shape will be comprehensive and uniquely Albertan, sustainable and accessible by all rather than just the elite.”

Turner added she believes this elective will give her invaluable work experience and a leg up in the job market, given the globalization of business and potential for growth in frontier markets.