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Ivey MBA’s Belgrade mission is as much about learning as teaching

Cynthia Innes is a member of the 2016 MBA class at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont.

Cynthia Innes is a member of the 2016 MBA class at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont., where she has focused on strategy, marketing and entrepreneurship. She graduated last week. Previously, Cynthia was a manager with the Edelman public relations firm. She has lived and worked in Malawi, South Korea and Canada, and calls Toronto home.

The red roofs of Belgrade fade behind me as the train picks up speed at the city's outskirts. A bag of hard candy appears in front of me. The woman across from me, dressed smartly for the trip and with a packed lunch tucked beside her, gives her offering an insistent shake. I oblige. After two weeks in Serbia's capital, this hospitality has become familiar.

Landing at Belgrade's airport earlier in the month, I didn't know what to expect. I had faint memories of headlines from my childhood – a civil war, a country dividing, peacekeepers, bombing. I knew little of this place that straddles East and West, worlds away from me in Canada.

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The place I encounter more than two decades later tells me a different story. Vibrant street cafes, strangers striking up conversations, a generation that dances all night. And yet, a lack of jobs, low wages, unrealized economic opportunity. Which brings me to why I am here.

For 25 years, students from Ivey Business School have scattered around the globe each May, in a student-run effort to equip entrepreneurs in developing economies with basic business skills that will, ideally, help to build and scale small businesses that can support economic growth and stability. I had the honour this year of joining more than 25 other graduate and undergraduate students in travelling to one of nine sites to deliver The Leader Project, a curriculum based on Ivey's case study method and refined over the years to take entrepreneurs from ideation to valuation and exit. There could not be a better way for me to share what I've learned these past 12 months of my MBA.

And, frankly, there could not be a better way for me to continue to learn. In exchange for sharing what I know about strategy and marketing and finance, I'm exposed to a new perspective on business. Each day in our classroom, 25 participants, spanning ages and industries and experience, discuss what our business tools will look like applied in Serbia's developing economy. Yes, there's red tape, delays and the risk of surrendering job security to follow hopefully profitable passions. But there's also the ripe export potential of a significant agricultural sector, local delicacies ready to be introduced to the world, and opportunities to redevelop industries stalled in past turmoil. Together, our perspectives combine into new ideas and solutions.

For my colleagues and me, two weeks and a casebook of tools are one small contribution toward empowering entrepreneurs to flourish and prosper and, most importantly, to encourage an economic movement that enables others to also join, flourish and prosper. But like my train seatmate's simple offering of her snacks (the candy has reappeared to me three times while writing this), I've seen in Serbia what small offerings can turn into – from conversations with strangers to potential new ventures, to resources and support to keep a good business growing.

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