Babson Magazine

Spring 2017

A Teacher and a Traveler

In a life spent exploring different countries and cultures, Miguel Rivera-Santos examines business in poor, overlooked places.

In the desert of eastern Kenya lies Dadaab, the largest complex of refugee camps in the world. More than 250,000 people, most having fled war and famine in Somalia, live in the crowded camps, where having enough to eat is an ongoing concern.

Miguel Rivera-Santos

Photo: Pat Piasecki
Miguel Rivera-Santos

Miguel Rivera-Santos, associate professor of strategy and international business, has studied Dadaab. He says that outsiders shouldn’t make assumptions about life there. “We close our eyes and think it’s a wasteland,” he says. “That’s wrong. It’s not a wasteland.” Conditions in the camp are dusty and dire, but residents work hard to build an existence. They make things. They buy and sell. The entrepreneurial spirit thrives, albeit on the most practical of levels. “The business activity is not about becoming rich,” says Rivera-Santos, the Louis J. Lavigne Research Scholar. “It’s about feeding one’s family.”

Rivera-Santos’ research focuses on communities in poor and overlooked places such as Dadaab; specifically, he examines how interactions with governments and multinational companies can affect those in poverty. Rivera-Santos’ work has taken him to many African countries, including Cameroon, Tanzania, South Africa, and Botswana. Those travels have left him impressed by Africa’s burgeoning business climate (“It’s a continent that is waking up,” he says) and inspired by its culture, history, and beauty. He is amazed by how much he doesn’t know about the continent. “Africa has a rich culture that goes back many hundreds of years,” he says.

Much of Rivera-Santos’ life has been spent moving among different countries and cultures. He was born and raised in Paris, but his parents come from Galicia in northwestern Spain. That explains his Spanish last name. It also explains a hobby he once pursued: playing the bagpipes. Galicia is a Celtic region in Spain, and the sounds of a bagpipe band are common in his family’s village. “It’s not the Scottish bagpipes but Galician bagpipes,” he says. “I can play, but I’m not good at it. I haven’t played in years.”

In Paris, Rivera-Santos and his family lived near the Canal St. Martin, an area that was once working class with mom and pop shops but has grown more “posh” over time, he says. As a child, he enjoyed Paris, but he didn’t view it as a beautiful or romantic city. It was simply what he knew, the place where he lived and went to school. Nowadays, he sees the city differently. “Going back, I see the beauty of it that I didn’t see before,” he says. “Now I’m a tourist when I go back, which is great.”

As a young adult after college, Rivera-Santos lived in Poland for almost six years during the 1990s. At the time, France had compulsory military or civil service, and Rivera-Santos choose the latter. This service brought him to Poland, where he worked for the French embassy, and when his 18 months of service were done, he decided to stay. He enjoyed Poland and its people, and the 1990s were an exciting time to be there as the country found its way after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rivera-Santos remembers seeing new businesses continually popping up. “Things were coming back to life,” he says. “I think there was a real entrepreneurial spirit.”

After completing his civil service, Rivera-Santos worked for a foundation that fostered cooperation between French and Polish universities. As part of that work, he found himself in the classroom, teaching basic business courses. He enjoyed it. In fact, Rivera-Santos recalls clearly the day he decided to make teaching a career. He was teaching an intro to marketing course in the city of Lublin in eastern Poland, an agricultural area, and his class was full of farmers who needed help learning how to sell. One day, a student came up to him and said that he had positioned the wares in his co-op’s store according to principles that Rivera-Santos had taught in his class. “After your class, I reshelved,” the student said, “and then we sold more.”

Rivera-Santos was astonished. “I remember thinking, ‘I did something that had an impact,’” he says. “This guy got something out of that. It got him thinking.” In 1997, Rivera-Santos left Poland and went on to earn a doctorate in strategy from HEC Paris. He came to Babson for a job interview in 2002 and immediately was smitten by the school. “It felt like home,” he says. “I could picture myself in an office on campus.”

That was 15 years ago. At Babson, Rivera-Santos teaches courses on strategy and global business institutions and policies. He often brings examples from his travels into the classroom. When teaching about innovation in poor markets, for instance, he may discuss how cell phones changed grocery shopping in remote Tanzania or helped Cameroon entrepreneurs manage their fleet of trucks.

His research on poverty continues to bring him to Africa. One of his recent projects involved looking at how government policies have affected street vendors in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. The vendors sell all sorts of items, from flowers to hats to phone cases, on the city’s streets. Viewing the vendors as a nuisance, but also wanting to help them out of poverty, the government introduced regulations, requiring vendors to register and pay taxes and moving them to a central location.

The government hoped the policies would legitimize the vendors and free them from corruption and the constant jockeying for prime spots on the streets. But while some vendors thrived, others didn’t, their way of doing business upended by the new rules. “All of a sudden, they had to completely change their business model,” Rivera-Santos says.

By traveling to Africa, Rivera-Santos strives to shine a light on communities, such as the street vendors, that are poor and powerless. He makes sure to share his research, whether with governments hoping to help those communities or with corporations looking to break into a new market. “My hope,” he says, “is that I can help them make better decisions, even in complex settings.”