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Class of 2013: Lives of Meaning and Purpose

MBA Student Conducts Customized Social Research in East Africa

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article, originally published in March, is one in a series of profiles on members of the Class of 2013, who will graduate on May 19. After Commencement, Nickerson will work with her thesis advisors to publish a paper based on her research in a peer-reviewed journal. To read other profiles, go to the Commencement page.

By John Larson

When her academic advisors recommended she spend Spring Break in East Africa conducting research for her thesis topic, Dionne Nickerson ’13G couldn’t pack her bags fast enough.

Fueled by her interests in technology and social entrepreneurship, Nickerson, an MBA student in the Providence College School of Business (PCSB), was encouraged by Dr. Daniel R. Horne, associate professor of marketing, and Dr. Mark DeFanti, assistant professor of marketing, to observe how small businesses in Kenya and Tanzania are using M-PESA, a low-cost electronic mobile phone money transfer system, to help alleviate poverty on the continent.

“I am interested in the social aspects of business — ways in which business concepts and strategies may be applied to solving social problems,” said Nickerson. “My advisors knew my academic and personal interests, as well as my capabilities. They understood what I wanted to do and pushed me even further than I originally imagined.”

DeFanti said that Nickerson is one of the strongest MBA students he has taught in his seven years at PC.

“Dionne is an extremely driven, intellectually curious, scholar. Thus, I was honored when she asked me to join Dr. Horne as the co-chair of her MBA thesis,” he said.

Well-prepared for the journey

Prior to the trip, the Brown University School of Engineering graduate tried to learn as much as she could about the challenges facing microentrepreneurs, as well as the advantages and disadvantages associated with mobile payment systems.

She developed a questionnaire that was handed out to 331 small business owners in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the largest cities in Kenya and Tanzania, respectively. She also conducted 15 one-on-one interviews with microentrepreneurs.

“My upfront research was instrumental in identifying the ‘right’ questions to ask the business owners during my interviews and in understanding their perspectives,” said Nickerson. “Going forward, I will employ the skills that I have learned through the MBA Program to analyze the collected data and provide, hopefully, useful recommendations.”

After reading so much about mobile money, Nickerson said it was an amazing experience to speak and interact with people for whom it is an integral part of their lives.

“Many of the microentrepreneurs were very surprised to hear that we did not have mobile money services like M-PESA in the U.S. In Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, M-PESA is everywhere, and for a number of microenterprises, especially those just starting up, it has allowed them to make sales even if a customer doesn’t have cash readily available,” said Nickerson.

“In Nairobi, some microenterprises are now able to provide goods to people as far away as Mombasa (Kenyan city on the coast) or Nakuru (in the Rift Valley province of Kenya). I look forward to analyzing the data collected to better understand the extent of M-PESA’s benefit to microentrepreneurs and to identify key reasons for user adoption,” added Nickerson.

Lessons learned

Nickerson said that the case-based methods taught by some of her PCSB professors — the process of solving new problems based on the solutions of similar past problems — helped in the development of her thesis project.

"I enjoy the case method because it involves looking at a problem from a variety of angles and providing well-researched, well-thought-out recommendations,” said the native of Chicago’s South Side. “It also requires that you take into account various economic, social, cultural, and regulatory factors when assessing a market opportunity.”

According to Dr. Sylvia Maxfield, PCSB dean, the school’s adaptable curriculum and classroom instruction that is complemented by real-world experience not only prepared Nickerson for her trip but also her future.

“Our MBA Program is small and flexible so we are able to customize it to students’ interests and inclinations,” said Maxfield. “In this environment, students can take initiative and find support for a variety of different kinds of learning experiences beyond the required courses.”

“That said, heading off to Africa with PCSB sponsorship to do field research in local marketplaces is pretty unusual, and we are very proud of Dionne’s initiative to make this happen.”

“Beyond being incredibly bright, she really represents what I consider to be hallmark qualities of so many of our PCSB students: humility, humanity, and hard work,” said Maxfield.



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