How this ESMT Berlin student is making a difference among the South African’s urban poor

A New Yorker through and through, Long Island native Theresa Rodriguez would never have expected a career in high-rise real estate development would one day land her on the streets of Berlin and Cape Town. She is on her way to finishing her Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) at ESMT Berlin, which is considered one of the most prestigious business schools in Europe. 

“I was always fascinated by cities,” said Rodriguez, who majored in urban planning at San Diego University during her undergraduate years, minoring in sociology and engineering. “I really enjoyed the way people and cities connect, so that’s why I picked sociology as my minor.” 

Her unique degree combination and skill sets led her to assume the role of a pre-construction manager, working on projects in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to work from home, Rodriguez felt that something was missing. Having visited Berlin the year before the pandemic, she fell in love with the city and started looking for an MBA abroad to further her studies. 

“After some research, I found ESMT Berlin, and I was really drawn to the MBA programme because of its accelerated 15-month course, instead of the standard two-year duration you usually see in American schools,” Rodriguez explains. 

The lure of a truly international experience was too good to resist, as ESMT Berlin is known for its diverse student body. Her six-year career in an international corporate company pushed her toward the programme’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship track, which opened up new doors in her professional development.

Theresa Rodriguez, ESMT Berlin student

The Responsible Leadership Fellowship at ESMT Berlin led Rodriguez to Cape Town, where she worked with youths and the urban poor to uplift community projects for long-term sustainable change. Source: Theresa Rodriguez

From ESMT Berlin to Cape Town: Navigating the pandemic abroad 

Studying abroad while the world is still grappling with the pandemic is risky for any student, but that didn’t deter Rodriguez. “I took a gamble at the peak of the pandemic. We started classes remotely, which was a bit challenging, but we were able to go to campus and our study rooms.” 

Oddly enough, this created a unique camaraderie among her coursemates. Despite not attending many classes in person, Rodriguez and her classmates strived to make the best out of their experience in Berlin.

“I think our cohort was really unique,” she says. “We lived through the pandemic together abroad, and were still able to find joy in going to campus, getting beers in the freezing Berlin winter, and finding ways to still have this MBA experience.” 

Being in a global business school meant having access to world-class educators from diverse backgrounds. The learning experience was a contrast to her undergraduate years in San Diego, where the instructors were mainly locals.

“The diversity of the professors at ESMT Berlin was just amazing. We had teachers from all over the world,” says Rodriguez.

“Some of our professors weren’t able to travel to Germany again due to travel restrictions, but we had teachers from Sweden and Ireland. Just having this diverse and international perspective from the professors was really valuable in seeing things differently.”

ESMT Berlin

Having travelled to Berlin prior to her MBA studies, Rodriguez thought that pursuing her studies there would lend a more international perspective in her postgraduate experience. Source: John Macdougall/AFP

It was this global-mindedness that would lead her to South Africa, thanks to the Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) programme attached to the MBA. The RLF allows students to delay their job search and extend their MBA experience by completing a social impact project. Through networks from her school and a chance Facebook exchange, Rodriguez soon found herself realising her goal of working in Cape Town.

“I pretty much manifested it,” she reflected. “I’d written in my admissions essay that I wanted to work on an urban development project in South Africa, as I’ve always wanted to travel to Cape Town. I thought the RLF was the opportunity to do that.”

Rodriguez currently works with Slum Dwellers International (SDI), a global network of community-based organisations for the urban poor in 32 countries. However, her beginning proved challenging.

“Omicron almost ruined everything — it was called the ‘South African variant’ when the outbreak first happened. It was definitely a major obstacle in December and early January. I was eventually able to go when things eased down,” she explains.

After settling in with a host family, the real grassroots work began. Through SDI, Rodriguez collaborates with locals to work on two projects: a youth-based initiative to develop resources for social entrepreneurship in informal settlements, and assisting in developing a new strategic plan for SDI.

The atmosphere was certainly a stark change from high-rise luxury developments.

“It just felt right to look at the other end of the spectrum. Even in real estate, we have to work with communities to understand their needs in the pre-construction development. A lot of those lessons learned with community engagement and service in New York have been super useful in this project,” she says.

How an ESMT Berlin used her MBA to work with the urban poor in Cape Town

Working with locals from South Dwellers International (SDI), a global grassroots network of the urban poor, Rodriguez leverages her background in real estate and urban planning to help with strategic planning and social entrepreneurship. Source: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP

Like many other countries, South Africa’s wealth gap has widened due to the pandemic, which naturally affected access to resources such as education and housing. Rodriguez and the local team she’s working with hope to address some of these issues despite the structural barriers that exist for the urban poor in Cape Town.

“There’s a lot to change — the inequality spectrum in South Africa is just mind-blowing,” she says.

“I think with the pandemic, it really says a lot of things about cities. In New York as well, the homelessness rate has just skyrocketed, and access to grants or help from the government is really dependent on the internet, and a lot of people in informal settlements just don’t have that privilege.

“So how would they know that there are grants or help, if they don’t have access to the information in the first place?”

Rodriguez acknowledges the legacy of the apartheid in creating zoning and land use regulations seen in South Africa.

Listening to the local community’s needs and their dreams has been the biggest takeaway from her work with SDI so far. Amid frequent internet disconnections, her team still manages to hold meetings to strategies; they meet up once a month in person.

“There’s nothing like an in-person meeting and getting to actually feel someone’s energy, especially when you’re talking about these projects that the youths are so passionate about,” says Rodriguez.

ESMT Berlin

Rodriguez’s fellowship experience in Cape Town has been life-changing, despite the challenges she faced in her studies and travels due to the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Theresa Rodriguez

Her MBA education proved useful in her present role: Rodriguez has been applying the knowledge learned in EMBS Berlin, especially under the Innovation and Entrepreneurship track.

“It’s definitely helped me a lot, especially in strategic planning. A lot of times I’ve gone through my slides from class to make sure that I’m using the correct terms and frameworks,” she says.

The sustainability component of in her MBA helped Rodriguez gain insights into different factors affecting socio-economic development, which is extremely relevant to her work with SDI.

Without a doubt, her MBA journey has been an exciting one. Her advice to prospective MBA students?

“Don’t underestimate the value of what it can do to your career,” she says. “I think a lot of students who want to participate in something like the RLF go through phases of doubt. Through that rollercoaster, just remember that it’s a once in a lifetime experience to be able to be supported through your university to do a social impact project.”

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