Taking Business Savvy to New Arenas

GW School of Business alumnus Mehir Desai’s work with the World Bank and USAID has taken him to Uganda, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mehir Desai
May 08, 2010

By Mary Dempsey

Mehir Desai always expected to be on the side of the underdog, helping entrepreneurs in developing countries fight red tape and other government obstacles. Today Mr. Desai, M.B.A. ’96, champions a more equitable playing field for small companies but he does it in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank.

In 2001, Mr. Desai co-founded D.C.-based Dexis Consulting Group, a 25-person subcontractor on World Bank and USAID projects. It has tackled 150 assignments across 40 countries, many of them in so-called “conflict economies.”

Dexis developed a promotion campaign for wines in Moldova, an online marketplace for fish in Uganda and overseas business promotion tools for Ghana. The firm helped write Iraq’s new investment laws. In Afghanistan the challenge was how to take agricultural products to the international market.

Mr. Desai is one of a growing roster of GW School of Business alumni who hold key positions at multilateral agencies, including the World Bank, the International Finance Corp, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank. Others work at the Clinton Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend in pursing careers in international development among our alumni,” says Gil Yancey, executive director of the F. David Fowler Career Center at the School of Business. “This exciting work has taken our students as far away as India, Australia, Peru and Tanzania.”

As a youth in India, Mr. Desai watched his parents – both entrepreneurs – hit wall after wall as they tried to help their companies grow. He decided that his career would focus on improving the landscape for those small and midsized operations.

“My parents were trying to make ends meet and run their businesses, and I could see that every step was so difficult,” Mr. Desai says. “Getting the business set up, getting factory space, paying taxes, hiring labor, understanding regulations … there were obstacles everywhere.”

He began his M.B.A. at GW with an interest in the global garment industry, but then landed a consulting job where he was asked to prepare a report about tropical fruit entering the United States. The report caught the eye of a USAID official, and Mr. Desai suddenly found himself involved in international development.

“Small businesses in development countries are like tightrope walkers with no safety net below them. I had always thought I would work on the side of business against government to ease regulations for small businesses, but this [USAID] approach seemed much more progressive. Why not work with the governments to make them better?” he says.

Mr. Desai’s on-the-ground experience has taught him that it is crucial for M.B.A.s and other business experts to become involved in development.

“I worked at the World Bank for three years, surrounded by some of the brightest people in the world. But you couldn’t get them to put a timetable of action together,” he says. “It’s an M.B.A. that teaches you how to be a good planner and how to execute the project.”

This story is adapted from the article “Following Their Passion: Business Grads Bring Savvy to Global Development” that appeared in the fall 2009 issue of GWbusiness magazine.

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