Project Aasha: Delivering impact and adaptability

by Sunita Chambore, Student-led Learning Manager

The mission of the Student-led Learning team at LBS is to challenge students to direct their own learning beyond the classroom and to impact beyond the school. One great example of this is Project Aasha, a student-led initiative creating social impact in India through pro-bono consulting projects. The 2020 leaders of this project are Emil Kichukov (MFA2020) and Fanni Luca Szente (MiM2020). I first met them in January 2020. They impressed me with their energy, enthusiasm and plans for leading Project Aasha. During my 8 years at LBS, I’ve worked mostly with our MBA students. It was exciting to see Early Career students seizing the opportunity to develop themselves. As student leaders, they have the chance to put academic excellence into practice, as well as grow a lifelong peer network.

By mid-March, it was clear that their plans for Project Aasha would need to change. Travel to India, a key part of the project, would not be taking place due to travel restrictions. Emil and Fanni had already recruited five teams of Early Career students excited to support projects in Bangalore. They impressed me, once again, with how they conducted themselves during this unprecedented time. Emil and Fanni both had a calm and proactive approach. They’re handling this huge change to the project well by actively managing the expectations of both their fellow students and the ‘changemakers’ in Bangalore. I posed some questions to Emil and Fanni to find out more.

Why did you decide to come to LBS?

Fanni: “There were two main reasons, I decided to come to LBS. First, I wanted to become a part of the LBS community with people from all over the world. They each bring different professional backgrounds and cultural heritages to campus. We have more than 70 active student clubs and several other student-led initiatives here. The LBS campus life is the most vivid community I have ever been part of! Second, I was impressed by the practical orientation of the MiM programme. During my bachelor degree in Germany, I did not have the chance to apply my theoretical knowledge to real-world situations. At LBS, this is our programme’s focus. Most of the group assignments are inspired by real-world cases. Instead of writing a master’s thesis, we conduct a consulting project with an external company.

Emil: “In one word – the people! Everybody I meet at LBS is very ambitious, knowledgeable, and from an interesting background. We learn from each other on a daily basis, but most importantly we have fun together and work together towards our goals. Other than that, for me it was important that the school has a strong reputation, outstanding faculty, and that it is based in vibrant London. With bachelors from Rotterdam School of Management and a year spent at EY, I believed that LBS was the next logical step in my career.”

Why did you apply to lead Project Aasha?

Fanni: “I applied to Project Aasha because it has a clear focus on social impact. In the past year, while working full-time, it was sometimes hard to assess the impact of my work. So, I decided to explore this field to get the chance to deliver impact where it is needed the most. This is for start-ups which are working hard to help the underprivileged of India. Project Aasha is a student-led initiative. This means I am in direct contact with our “clients” in India. I am pleased to be able to witness the impact that the Aasha team will deliver this year.”

Emil: “It was more of a feeling than a rational decision. Despite my busy schedule with classes, finding a job, and other commitments, I promised myself that I will take on things that I just feel like doing. It is part of how I stay connected with myself. If I need to analyse why I felt like doing it, probably it is because I enjoy coordinating projects. Also, I am curious about different cultures and their perspectives towards the world. Most importantly, I believe in the importance of improving people’s lives, especially those who need it the most.”

How has COVID-19 affected your plans for Project Aasha?

Emil: “Well, it was a small bump… let’s be fair – a large one. Our field work in India needed to be cancelled. This would have been the time that participants created the most impact by working hand-in-hand with the social start-ups. However, we decided that we still want to continue working and all teams are now having regular Zoom calls with their clients. It is a difficult situation but we still want to make the best out of it! Being adaptive is something we all need to learn and I believe the current situation offers us an essential learning opportunity.”

Fanni: “Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Project Aasha field-trip to India got cancelled. Thus, we will not be able to deliver the same social impact this year which the past teams could reach. But, with the support of all participants, we decided that we still try to deliver as much impact as we can – even if we are working remotely. Currently, Emil and I are working on establishing the new project plan to help the work of the teams in supporting their ‘Changemakers’. Until now, our focus was to find additional ways to provide guidance to the teams. With help from the Consulting Club, we arranged 10 mentors from the MBA, EMBA, and Sloan programmes. With their extensive experience, they will be supporting the teams during the whole project execution. Additionally, we created a LinkedIn group for past and current Aasha participants. Our aim is to create an Aasha community which connects the different years of Project Aasha. We hope that the platform will enable the teams to reach out to past participants and discuss their experience and learning.

Have any of your classes informed your decision making with this project?

Fanni: “The most useful class which helped me to make decision for this project was definitely “Performing in Organisations”. In this soft-skill oriented class, we learned how to work in and lead teams, negotiate and network. Skills which I definitely need to put into use as a project lead. This class is taught by Pier Vittorio Mannucci.”

Emil: “As an MFA student, the focus of my studies is slightly different. But I believe the most important part of education is to teach people how to think and how to apply their knowledge and skills in different settings. From that perspective, I do believe I used learnings from class during the project e.g. risk assessment. I also got very inspired by my Corporate Finance professor, Alex Edmans, and his research and ideas that through growing the pie, companies can deliver both purpose and profit.”

Do you have any advice for the students that will lead on this project in 2021?

Fanni: “You can never start recruitment early enough. The process takes longer than expected. This includes designing the application form, evaluating the responses, and interviewing team leads. It then took time to make the final decision on whom to pick, and put the teams together. It is always great to have people from outside Early Careers (e.g. MBAs) to feedback on the recruitment plans. We were in contact with the president of the Impact Consulting Club. They gave us a general understanding of how the Club organised its recruitment for their own projects. This flagged to us some key aspects that we needed to be aware of.”

Emil: “Take all the learnings from previous years and run the project the way you think is right. Planning in advance is essential and as much as the school wants to support you, you will be surprised how many planning challenges you will face.”

What has been the highlight of your time at LBS so far?

Fanni: “I am not sure that I can choose a single highlight of my LBS life! Every term, even every month had its own highlight. However, if I had to choose one, I would definitely pick Tattoo. As one of the biggest events at LBS with over 1,000 tickets sold, it shows the essence of LBS. By setting up food stalls and participating in the talent show, all regional Clubs can bring their own heritage to School. The students can submerge in this colourful and diverse world. I was responsible for organising the food stall for the Central and Eastern Europe Club. We were serving food next to the table of the Africa and Australia & New-Zealand Club. Where else can you find these regions all under one roof?”

Emil: “I don’t really have a highlight. The entire journey has been a rollercoaster with all its ups and downs – a journey during which I am very happy I made many good friends.”

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