WDI’s Field Scholar Program: Double Duty, Double Impact

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Headshots of the 2021 Davidson Field Scholars

Program Builds on Supporting Partners in Healthcare, Investing, Entrepreneurship

“Working with the William Davidson Institute is a unique opportunity to put theory into practice in complex environments,” said Douglas Ely, a joint MBA-MS student at the University of Michigan and a 2021 Davidson Field Scholar. In taking advantage of the field scholar program, Ely has worked closely with the affiliated International Investment Fund and an off-grid biowaste project, all in an effort to discover more about developing businesses in emerging markets. And it’s been working.

Ely explained how the experiences he enjoyed as a field scholar have opened his eyes to different ways to work with profit-seeking businesses based, or operating in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) . “I had not worked in a business environment, or a purely for-profit environment, and so that’s been a good opportunity for me. I really value learning new ways of what’s possible, and I learned a lot about the practice of building a business.”

The time Ely has spent with the WDI leaders and partners has given him a new perspective on what’s possible when it comes to economic and social growth around the globe. It’s an opportunity that has benefitted each of the 2021 field scholars — and one that’s open to graduate students at U-M.

Working with the William Davidson Institute is a unique opportunity to put theory into practice in complex environments


WDI supports U-M student initiatives in a number of ways, from sponsored courses, to specialized projects to coordinated internships. However, to become a field scholar, students must complete two courses or programs, in coordination with their graduate programs. 

All of the work completed by students matches the needs of WDI partner organizations, which in turn benefit from their dedication. “Our students make important contributions to the partners that we work with in LMICS,” explained WDI President Paul Clyde. “It’s a testimony that [these partners] keep coming back. They’re interested in having other teams work with them.” 

Students pursuing their MBA at Michigan’s Ross Business School are required to participate in a Multidisciplinary Action Project, several of which are supported by WDI. In the second year, students can take an emerging markets course, complete an internship or independent study, apply to participate in the International Investment Fund, or work with the Michigan Academy for the Development of Entrepreneurs (MADE).

The 2021 scholars — Saba Alemnew, Corey Stearns Bourbonais, Emily Edkins, Douglas Ely, Kyle Jarrett, Alexis Kenworthy, Sonal Thawani, and Joe Ripple — all tackled projects that pushed their professional growth and exposed them to the business of emerging markets. Through their individual work and collective efforts, the group has helped improve the MADE initiative, which is now engaging with organizations in India, Ukraine, Senegal and Kenya to create and maintain a profitable business that provides training and consulting to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). They’ve advanced the International Investment Fund, a student-run fund designed to make investments in SMEs in emerging economies, through its second year. They provided market analysis, strategic analysis, and analyzed growth potential for companies in India, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Peru.

These experiences are powerful and distinct, but they aren’t unusual for WDI field scholars. “WDI has projects that you can’t really do elsewhere on campus,” said Natasha Arnold, Executive Research Associate at WDI. These student programs bring together industry experts and local entrepreneurs from around the globe, placing students at the crux of significant business decisions and plans. 

The students agree that this access is key — and critical in their skill development. “There are expert practitioners at WDI who are excited and willing to bring you along, and offer trust and opportunities to gain valuable experience doing real work with people around the world,” said Ely.


WDI makes it a priority to consistently support both sides of this relationship: students and global partners. 

And that’s because field scholars are providing serious and impactful insights. 

“The students are always working on projects requested by the partner and their solutions play a big role in the direction the organization takes.” 

In one case, a student team’s proposal affected the hospitals all over the country.

“The U-M team developed a recommendation to improve the operation of one partner’s hospital,” Clyde recalled. “The Ministry of Health was so pleased with it, they ended up rolling it out to other hospitals around the country.” 

WDI’s mission is to equip economic decision-makers in LMICs with the tools of commercial success, and by applying the tools many students are learning within their graduate programs, they are aiding in that mission.

COVID-19 changed much about the field scholar experience, however. Clyde explains how the pandemic affected not only their ability to travel, but the kinds of projects the group could do with partners. Still, he was impressed by the determination of the 2021 Field Scholars cohort in the face of the health crisis. “They didn’t let that stop them from doing useful work for our partners in the field.”

2021 Davidson Field Scholar Emily Edkins says she made the most of her time as a DFS, during which she decided to alter her career focus from power and utilities to the healthcare industry. Indeed, she found projects at WDI that aligned with that shift. She worked with GVK EMRI to assess the emergency response operations of companies in Uttar Pradesh, India, and with TIP Global Health to assist in the organization’s efforts to expand a digital health program across Rwanda. Like most of the field scholars, she was disappointed not to be able to travel to the sites of her partner organizations, but Edkins can see the value in her primarily digital experience. “It helped reinforce the importance of listening and asking questions, of not being afraid to inquire in the moment. We had to make sure we were clear and could slow down when needed.” 

She also shared how much she learned from her WDI advisors and partners. “I was really lucky that, for both projects, I worked with such great partners. They were really open and always willing to share and dig even deeper into the topics, and I felt like I couldn’t have asked for more supportive liaisons.” She’s grateful for the relationships she built at WDI, which she says were at the cornerstone of her business school experience. 

Edkins said she hopes other students will consider taking advantage of this uniquely challenging program. “It’s a great opportunity to expand your mindset and build relationships with those global partners,” she said.

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