From Survival Mode to Sustainable Business

Marcelle Lashley-Kaboré, GEMBA 2019

“Playing it safe is the riskiest thing we can do!”

This is the educational mindset (and perhaps the battle cry!) of Marcelle Lashley-Kaboré, a GEMBA 2019 classmate and a celebrated star in the global social enterprise space. From the US to Africa to the Caribbean, Marcelle continues to open the eyes and broaden the minds of students and potential entrepreneurs, inspiring them to be bold, seize the initiative and turn their ideas into workable businesses, today.

We sat down with the three-time-Emmy-winning social entrepreneur, to ask about her philosophy of education, upcoming projects and her hopes for the future of sustainable business.

Customer Experience first – Forging the ‘Wow Factor’

“I’m an experiential learner, I always have been. To really understand something, I have to get in there and physically get to grips with it. I see something new, I want to open it up, root around a little, and really figure out how it works. This served me well in my early career as a marketer, when creating the kind of product experiences that would truly connect with the intended audience. Little did I know it at the time, but this approach would be just as crucial later on.”

Marcelle’s early professional background is in marketing consumer-facing technology products. As an increasingly senior consultant and then director, she was responsible for creating and then delivering attention-grabbing introductory experiences for the latest products of the world’s biggest consumer tech brands. At a relentless pace, Marcelle brought all manner of mobile devices and home electronics to life before the crowds of the biggest US trade shows and expos. Ever focused on the experiential side of marketing, Marcelle always strove to make the inherent ‘wow factor’ of each product as immediately accessible to her audience. They had to be able tangibly feel and absorb the significance of what the product could do, and how it would fit seamlessly into their lives.

Despite working on the most significant events in the industry – such as the annual Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas – eventually Marcelle began to feel her own attention being pulled in another direction.

“It was always a huge adrenaline rush to be working on these top-secret projects, these next-generation products. To be at the centre of ‘the next big thing’ in consumer technology. However, after years of doing this, it felt like all the effort, energy and money wasn’t really helping anyone in an empowering way. It was simply a case of moving on to the next product. Eventually, this wasn’t enough for me anymore.”

Education and Inspiration, for a New Entrepreneurial Generation

Marcelle, herself an immigrant to the US from Trinidad, had already experienced the life-changing power of seizing educational opportunities. Equally, she was painfully aware that even in New York, one of the richest and well-resourced US states, these opportunities were spread extremely unevenly.

“We all know that there are gaps in the US educational system – big ones. Money flows around, but it doesn’t reach everywhere, which means that not everyone has the same chance to reach their full potential. If you’re in a disadvantaged community, you don’t get the same opportunity to thrive. Throughout my career, I frequently found that I was the only one in the room that looked like me; I wasn’t just the only woman of colour, but often the only woman in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder why that was, and why it wasn’t changing.”
Marcelle Lashley-Kaboré, GEMBA 2019

This recurring thought eventually led Marcelle towards the Xposure Foundation – a social enterprise dedicated to exposing children and people of all ages to the worlds of science, technology, finance and more. Enamoured with the socially progressive and innovative ideas of its founder, Raymond L. Thomas, Jr, Marcelle threw herself at the chance to push the frontiers of education while helping students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Raymond, and the foundation, changed my whole outlook on education. They wanted to bring fantastic technological resources to communities that remain overlooked and underserved here in the United States. They wanted to create unforgettable educational experiences with these resources, inspiring schoolchildren to think bigger and bolder. I thought it was simply brilliant, and I knew I could help. I’d spent years forging exciting, memorable experiences with technology, now I wanted to do it in a deeper, more meaningful way.”

From a gradual start in voluntary mentoring, Marcelle became more deeply embedded in the Foundation, where she has served as its Chief Experience Officer since 2010. For the past 12 years, she has used the same approach from her marketing days to bring the most inspiring and engaging tech-based educational experiences into the classroom. 

“If education is not connecting, it’s because the approach is old and outdated. I just thought, what if we just do something different? What if we were able to take the same experiential model that brands pay a lot of money to create? What if we brought that into the classroom for students? While I’m not a professionally trained teacher, what I do know is how to design experiences. I know how to create something that will allow a person on the receiving end to come out with a practical learning experience that will enhance their life.”

Emmy-winning content – from the classroom to the nation’s TV screens

The impact of Marcelle’s work reaches far beyond the classrooms where she delivers her brand of experiential learning. To every student and budding entrepreneur, she emphasises the importance of real-world practicality when it comes to education. 

“I often tell young students that you don’t have to wait until they’re older to make exciting things happen. You can make them happen right now, today. The work you are putting in now can manifest as something real – whether it’s making money, starting a business, or creating something that makes you stand out professionally. If you can use your knowledge, skills and ideas to create something tangible today, then just do it.”

Perhaps one of the most noticeable results of this educational philosophy is the attention that Marcelle, her students and the foundation have received from the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television, Arts and Science in recent years. The organisation has repeatedly seen their work as worthy of New York Emmy nominations, and Marcelle herself has been personally received 12 nominations, winning three awards in the process.

The Emmys recognise excellence in national prime-time programming, rewarding the best of the best. For her most recent Emmy win, Marcelle was the producer for a series of documentaries, songs and films where her students explored the cultural phenomenon of Black Wall Street, its tragic destruction and its lasting legacy on the psyche of both Black and White America. Students expressed their understanding of this defining moment in US race relations with a creative outpouring of songs, videos, documentaries and art pieces. After reviewing this treasure trove, Marcelle felt that it needed a bigger stage on which to shine.

“Our students created something incredible, and I thought: why just leave it there? What if we put it on television? What if we brought their talents and their perspectives to a wider audience? So that’s what we did. it was our way of taking the educational content from out of the classrooms and putting it onto people’s screens, raising awareness for what we are doing while physically showing students how far their ideas can go.”

An undeniable endorsement of the experiential education approach, this latest Emmy coup has also given Marcelle’s students highly impressive accolades of their own. Over 100 of them can now rightfully say that they themselves are Emmy Award winners or Emmy nominated content creators. Marcelle says that this is one of her proudest achievements to date, as it is another tangible example of how students of young age and disadvantaged backgrounds can create the most exciting opportunities for themselves.

Marcelle Lashley-Kaboré, GEMBA 2019

Girls With Knowledge – Empowering Voices of the Future

Allowing young people to create their own opportunities is the central pillar of Marcelle’s current efforts. Seven years into her work with the Xposure Foundation, Marcelle felt the time was right to birth GWK – Girls With Knowledge. As a not-for-profit organisation, its mission is to prepare and empower the next generation of female social entrepreneurs and global business leaders. It does this not only by creating the kind of experiential learning opportunities outlined above, but also by addressing social, racial, cultural and economic disparities, and then helping to eradicate them.

Starting in 2017 in the US, GWK has branched out to Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Guyana and Trinidad, all countries that Marcelle has ties to. By giving female students of all ages dedicated mentorship, access to educational resources and a vital layer of financial literacy, GWK allows female entrepreneurs to elevate their business from survival level to that of sustainable wealth generation, and beyond.

“In my travels, what became very evident to me is that most workers in developing countries or deprived communities are self-employed, small-scale entrepreneurs. They face a high risk of poverty, as they are often unable to scale up their business. Therefore, we decided in our educational programming that incorporating entrepreneurship and financial literacy was essential in the fight against poverty. We wanted to empower self-employed workers, to give them everything they needed to improve their job and income stability.”

Today, GWK Global is responsible for helping hundreds of young people develop their own business ideas, while their mentors help them see the idea through to fruition. There is also a heavy emphasis on collaboration, as GWK is designed to be a platform for connecting young entrepreneurial minds across its active territories and further afield. Marcelle and her GWK colleagues will be taking this idea even further this year, as January will see the unveiling of a new project that’s very close to her heart. [Nb: Interview took place December 2022]

“I’m so incredibly excited as we are about to launch our latest project – House of GWK. Located in downtown Manhattan, it’s an entrepreneurship incubator where our students can come and learn, connect with mentors and other entrepreneurs, create and fully develop their businesses. It’s not just a think tank, it’s a ‘think and do’ tank! What’s really special about it is that we put it together in collaboration with so many of my female entrepreneur friends and associates – so we’re practising what we preach!”

Serving as the pilot project, the Manhattan site for House of GWK will set a template for what Marcelle hopes will be exported to each of the GWK Global countries. Like the businesses of her students, scaling up in this manner means improving the impact, reach and sustainability of the GWK enterprise as a whole. 

Yearning to Return to China – Completing the GEMBA Journey

Marcelle is still a member of GEMBA 2019, and despite the near constant covid-related disruptions of the past three years, she has remained with the programme. She continues to wait for travel restrictions to lift so that she can fully resume her studies in person, learning on CEIBS campuses and in global modules once they become deliverable once again.

Marcelle Lashley-Kaboré, GEMBA 2019

When we spoke to Marcelle in December, she was itching to get back to China and finish what she had started.

“So many people ask me why I’ve stayed with GEMBA rather than joining a new programme. The answer is simple: I’ve not found anything else that comes close to the value CEIBS can offer me. An experiential, immersive education approach is exactly what suits me; it’s what I want for my own learning, it’s what I deliver with GWK, and it’s what I think delivers the greatest value. No other business school comes close to reliably offering this, so that’s why I’m still waiting to come back!”

For Marcelle, always the committed experiential learner, it’s the cut and thrust of practical, real-world learning opportunities that excite her most. Whether its during global modules or exploring the different approaches of Chinese and international businesses in a China Deep Dive, Marcelle longs to be exposed to new examples of real-world business challenges and solutions. Similarly, she’s looking forward to being back among a highly diverse set of classmates who can share their unique perspectives with her.

“I can’t wait to be back with a cohort of people who all, like me, want to truly think globally and not just watch from the sidelines. 2019 feels like a long time ago, but I remember how special it is when you get people from all over the world coming together to share their experiences, debate the future of our respective industries, and the future of business as a whole. I really hope that I get my wish in 2023, because I’m so ready to come back!”

We fervently hope that Marcelle does in fact get her wish, as CEIBS is just as ready to have her back too!

Tom Murray