Student Spotlight: Leslie Shages, MBA ’11

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October 6th, 2011

Leslie Shages

When Life Hands You Cashews…

It’s funny how things work out. Leslie Shages (GSM ’11) started out as a freshman majoring in anthropology. She moved from there to one unlikely place after another, somehow managing to follow a natural progression regardless, and ended up as a world traveler and a Boston University School of Management MBA student.

Leslie’s long-standing interest in cultures and people led her to study abroad as a junior in college in a rather unusual place: Madagascar.

It was in Madagascar where Leslie had her first try at small business development. One of her host families was a doctor who ran a holistic clinic and became a mentor to her. When it was time for Leslie to leave, she wanted to show her thanks with a gift, but he wouldn’t accept. So instead, she decided to sell photographs she took in Madagascar back in the US and donate the proceeds to the doctor’s clinic.

“I went about it totally the wrong way,” says Leslie. “I didn’t keep books, and I priced the cards based on cost only and not value. But my local shops and community back home were very supportive, and I actually sold all 1,000 of the photo cards I had originally produced—and then some. I sent Nat Quansah $1,500 for his clinic.”

After graduation, Leslie found a perfect job with a women’s cooperative called Women in Progress that was looking for a photographer to take pictures of their program in Ghana. Leslie immediately jumped at the chance.

“I fell in love with West Africa,” she says. “Everyone in Ghana just had a lot of pride in the way they carried themselves, regardless of how poor they were. There was always a lot of dancing and singing, and if you went to church, everyone would be clapping their hands and was very joyous. It is a very vibrant culture.”

Leslie’s next step was to work as a program assistant at a Watertown-based international development organization. But her heart was still in Africa. So she joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in the West African country Burkina Faso for two years as a health care educator. She arrived in September of 2006.

In December, Leslie received a care package from her dad. He had sent a bag of honey sesame cashews from Trader Joe’s.

“My first thought was, ‘Darn it,” she says. Of all the things I miss from America, he sends the one thing that uses the three ingredients they actually have here.

“But then I thought: ‘business opportunity.’ I wonder if we could make these here?”

This is the question Leslie posed to the president of a small women’s group in the village where she was stationed. And with that, they got started on perfecting a recipe; three days later they had a great-tasting product.

Leslie and some of the other women from the group traveled to the nearest city to hand out samples of their new honey sesame cashews. Most folks were not used to the sweet taste, and the women got a lukewarm response.

Or so they thought.

A week later one of their biggest naysayers called to rush-order 50 pounds of the cashews for a wedding. The women’s group immediately went to work. Once completed, Leslie made the delivery and collected the payment. They had been paid $80, and everyone in the group earned around $4, the equivalent of working four 10-hour days on someone’s field.

“You couldn’t even compare the two incomes,” Leslie recalls. “I don’t think any of the members had ever gotten that big of a chunk of money at any one time before, and they hadn’t had to do back-breaking work to earn it. When I handed out the money to the women they began clapping and doing dances. I was just on cloud 9; I remember that as the best day of my life. It meant so much to them; it was the most important $80 I could have ever gotten.

“That’s when I thought, business is the way to go—the best way to do development work. People don’t get that excited when you tell them about having to get checkups and expensive medicines. But at least they couldn’t tell me they didn’t have the money to do those things anymore. I realized how much business opens up the ability for development in other areas. The women were so happy and empowered.”

Now Leslie is an MBA candidate in the School’s Public & Nonprofit Management program, hoping to continue her development work after graduation.

And the women’s group she helped to start the cashew business? It’s thriving. The women, some of whom had never left their village before they met Leslie, now make regular deliveries and transactions completely on their own, and have even added some new clients to their roster since she left.

Success on both sides of the Atlantic.

By Alissa Mariello