A Different Kind of Start-Up

Published on December 06, 2010

Amy Lehman, MBA ’05, MD ’05, described her endeavor as a “huge, insane, massive” project. No doubt, it is. As the founder of the Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, Lehman is planning to build a 600-ton marine vessel, which would provide health care to the 3 million people living along the lake’s coast. Four countries share Lake Tanganyika’s coastline: Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

“It’s one of the poorest, most unstable places in the world,” Lehman told students November 20 at Gleacher Center, an event sponsored by the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development. “The single longest coastline of Lake Tanganyika is Eastern Congo. I work basically in a conflict/post-conflict zone. This is also a place that is physically disconnected from the rest of the world.”

The health statistics of Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, the two countries that the Floating Health Clinic will primarily serve, show the desperate need for medical care. The life expectancy in both counties is less than 50 years, according to the World Health Organization, and malaria kills one in seven children under age 5 living along the lake. On the Tanzanian coast, there are few health centers, and they uniformly lack running water and electricity, she said.

Lehman’s campaign to construct the ship, complete with operating rooms and a pharmacy, started with two years of researching the lake region and its residents inside and out. Her business school education allowed her to turn that information into a business plan to raise the $6 million needed to build the Floating Health Clinic. “It’s just like a start-up business,” Lehman said. “It’s very difficult to get people to shell out money at the beginning when you say, ‘Hey I’ve got this idea about Lake Tanganyika; I’m going to build this hospital ship. Don’t you want to give me some seed money?’”

Lehman has won grants and donations from smaller foundations and high-net-worth individuals by presenting the idea as a business proposition. “That enabled me to begin to strategize about the next level of funding,” Lehman said. “Now, we’re going after big grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and also connecting with corporations that have large sums of money designated for corporate social responsibility. When I showed my business plan to the person who heads corporate social responsibility for Hewlett Packard, he told me, ‘I’ve never seen a project proposal from the nonprofit sector that included a set of complete financials.’”

Lehman’s experiences resonated with Evan Kereiakes, a student in the Evening MBA Program. Kereiakes is director of finance and business development for Waste To Watts, a start-up venture aiming to ship recycled electronics from the United States to African countries to boost energy output. “She has done the work— visiting with investors, experts, and government officials—to pull necessary parties together and make sure she can put resources on the ground and have an impact, bridging that divide between having an idea and turning it into reality,” Kereiakes said.

Alejandro Solis, a second-year student in the Full-Time MBA Program, echoed the thought. “This is how you can use the tools you have in the classroom to have an impact on society,” he said. Originally from Mexico City, Solis plans to develop microfinance projects for start-ups back in Mexico. “She was in our shoes a few years ago. These discussions let you see the path of where you’re heading and what you can accomplish.”

— Kadesha Thomas