- November 16, 2021
A group of adventurous MIT students traveled to Mongolia as part of a pilot program in this fast developing country.
During the summer of 2016, three students led a course on mobile app development and entrepreneurship through GSL, and three researched the local innovation ecosystem as full-time iDiplomats supported by MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (REAP).
Developing mobile app startups
Over the eight-week GSL course, 41 young aspiring entrepreneurs from Mongolia worked to develop their own mobile app startup businesses under the supervision of MIT graduate students. Beth Hadley (Master’s of Computer Science ’17) led the technical instruction, Thanh Le (Master’s of Business ’17) led the entrepreneurship instruction, and James Addison (Master’s of Architecture ’18) was responsible for the design and communication instruction.
As a result of this intensive summer course – delivered in partnership with the National University of Mongolia and the Mongolian University of Science and Technology – participants from the country developed ten mobile application startups and pitched their ideas at a Demo Day in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Ranging from an app to reserve basketball courts to an app that enables users to buy and sell used books, the variety of projects surprised and delighted the audience and judges. “This experience was the most challenging work experience I have encountered to date, but perhaps for this exact reason, I do believe it was the most impactful,” said Beth Hadley, a repeat MISTI student. Eighty-percent of the Mongolian students indicated that they planned to continue developing their startup business after the end of the program.
Studying entrepreneurship in Mongolia
While three students were teaching the inaugural GSL course, the other three were researching the country’s innovation ecosystem. They applied the framework and models developed by MIT faculty, as used by REAP and in classes such as 15.364 on ‘Regional Entrepreneurship-Acceleration Leaders’.
Within the broader iDiplomats program sponsored by MISTI and the MIT Innovation Initiative (MITii), the students were enrolled as full-time ‘REAP-iDips’ to study the resources and challenges in developing innovation and entrepreneurship in Mongolia. Supported closely by REAP Director Sarah Jane Maxted, these intrepid ‘REAP-iDips’ headed around the world with their MIT innovation ecosystem frameworks for field study in Ulaanbaatar. “Prior to our departure, we had found little information about Mongolia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, so we did not expect to find a strong and growing community of passionate entrepreneurs,” admitted Megan McKnelly (Brain and Cognitive Sciences ‘17) and Luvena Ong (Ph.D. graduate in Health Sciences and Technology), who worked on a joint iDiplomat research project.
They travelled throughout the capital city of Ulaanbaatar to interview nearly 100 entrepreneurs, business and banking executives, lawyers, and university professors. “Everyone with whom we spoke was very open and enthusiastic to share their perspectives and stories,” they said.
Capitalism in Mongolia is still young, as the country adopted it less than 30 years ago. Little information about building and running a business is available for entrepreneurs. However, many Mongolian youths are eagerly developing new products and business models, from unique cosmetics using Mongolian ingredients to building a Mongolian version of Uber. “With the right resources, Mongolia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem has the potential to grow and thrive on a global scale,” Megan and Luvena concluded.
Sarah Jane Maxted, Executive Director for MIT REAP, said, "With the success of Mongolia’s REAP-iDips pilot, we have several other regions wishing to host an MIT student this summer including our MIT REAP teams. The REAP-iDips will help teams build on their understanding of their entrepreneurial ecosystem, engage further with regional stakeholders and select a specific project to help the team move their MIT REAP strategy forward.”
Exploring nomadic life
In addition to their work, the MIT students were able to travel throughout the country and experience cultural traditions stemming from the days of the famed conqueror Genghis Khan. They attended festivals for the national holiday Naadam where they learned about the country’s thousand year history and the traditional games of wrestling, archery, horseback riding, and anklebone shooting. They also experienced the nomadic lifestyle when they spent a night in traditional felt gers. “Everyone we met was so generous and open to sharing their culture and their stories, and we will never forget the generosity of the Mongolian people,” Luvena said.
Beth added that the “time in Mongolia not only changed us, but we changed Mongolia through the work we did and the people we interacted with. It was an amazingly mutually beneficial partnership, which I am sure will continue for years to come.” At the end of the summer, the MIT students left the country having experienced a truly unique and beautiful culture and made many new Mongolian friends.
Professor Stephen Graves, Principal Investigator of the MIT-Mongolia Pilot Program, added: “The program aims to connect MIT with the Mongolian academic and entrepreneurial community through bottom-up, hands-on projects. The activities last summer have been a tremendously successful example in this regard and we hope to add other activities such as workshops and small research projects in the future.”