Solar Panels, Entrepreneurship, and Building Connections With 100,000 Students

I met fellow Case Western Reserve University Professor Daniel Lacks a few years ago when he was heading to Myanmar for a Fulbright and he wanted to pick my brain on my experience there. He's a likeable and super smart guy (PhD from Harvard in Chemistry, Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Case Western Reserve), and he has a couple of patents for things that I can't even pronounce. In any case, we share a mutual interest in international travel, and Dan takes students to the developing world each year as part of his senior capstone course. The students work together to install solar panels for communities that are off the electricity grid. He told me recently that he was planning a trip and was looking for a community that would be interested in solar panels.

I instantly thought of Maria Newaya, one of my Beyond Silicon Valley MOOC students that I met while in Namibia in 2015. I discussed meeting Maria in an earlier Huffington Post piece I wrote while in Southern Africa last summer. Maria's business is focused on helping local cattle farmers find new markets for beef in Namibia. I knew from discussions with her that the villagers in her rural community could benefit from electricity. I connected Dan and Maria, and several months later a group of Case Western Reserve students were in Iikokola, where they installed solar panels for several homes. The villagers now have light in their homes and can charge their cell phones, providing crucial links to their customers.

A small video production team from Case accompanied Dan and his students to Namibia and created this amazing, short video about the solar panel installation project. If you want to get a great sense of what a solar panel can do in a rural village with no electricity, then please take a look at it!

I also assigned a project to a group of my MBA students in our design in management course in which they helped analyze Maria's beef distribution business and provide her with some advice. They explored new product lines for the farmers such as vegetables and chicken.

When I launched Beyond Silicon Valley two years ago, I didn't think it would be possible to build deep relationships with my online students, especially compared to the meaningful and rich relationships I have with the entrepreneurship students in my traditional face-to-face classroom at Case Western Reserve University. With more than 100,000 students in the Beyond Silicon Valley course, getting to know each and every one in a meaningful way is admittedly impossible.

Yet since I launched the course 2 years ago, I have traveled to 15 countries to conduct seminars around the course for the US State Department, met and developed great relationships with thousands of my MOOC students through these in-person discussions; I've met thousands of others virtually via tools like Skype, WebEx and Google Hangouts. My MOOC provides other support for students through many avenues: the students communicate with and support each other, they learn about resources to support entrepreneurs in their community and abroad, and I am also able to help make connections between students and people in my network, like Maria and Dan. Directly and indirectly, many entrepreneurs have discovered resources and people who can help them test their business hypotheses, attract new customers, and raise investment capital.