Advisors Coach, Mentor and Walk Alongside Students

Two men sit and talk in front of a Building Tomorrow banner.

Alumni give the gift of their time and a heart for service to Mendoza students

A team of six University of Notre Dame MBA students walked far more than a mile in someone else’s shoes in rural Uganda last spring. As part of the Meyer Business on the Frontlines Program,  the team was supported and coached every step of the way by three remarkable advisors: business leaders Luke Guinan (MBA ‘16), and married duo John and Terri Dunbar.

Guinan (MBA ‘16) remembers one day on the trip as being particularly grueling:  “We had an incredibly vigorous itinerary – waking up at 4 a.m. to travel across the country on bumpy roads to ensure we arrived promptly for a 7 a.m. meeting with a village elder.” 

Back on the road by noon, the team made due with granola bars for lunch while the van crawled along to their next meeting. This one was with a Community Education Volunteer (CEV) with Frontlines’ in-country partner, Building Tomorrow, who lived in a particularly rural area and walked many miles on a daily basis to serve an elementary school in the Masindi district.

On the way, the team discovered that the route was flooded. They unanimously decided to keep going even without their van, trudging the rest of the way through mud. Although they were now even further behind schedule, they knew that showing up was more important than stopping for lunch or staying dry. 

Working in 30 countries and across the United States, Frontlines teams collaborate with local partners to imagine solutions for some of the world’s most challenging problems. To achieve this, Frontlines advisors donate approximately 400 hours of their time over any given semester. Acting as mentors and coaches, advisors provide solid business expertise and institutional memory about a project’s history and stakeholders, and emotional support to the team along the way.

“From day one, Team Uganda recognized the innate power of their presence. Their mission and purpose extended far beyond the formalization of Building Tomorrow’s CEV program,” said Guinan. “It became a goal to meet as many Ugandans as possible — to see them, listen to them and validate them, offering perhaps the most precious gift humans can give of themselves: our time.” 

The team’s other two advisors, John and Terri Dunbar, the proud parents of two Notre Dame graduates, have served as advisors for Frontlines teams for nine years. Terri holds an MBA and John Dunbar was first on the ground in Uganda in 2015. A corporate leader in mergers and acquisitions, and an adjunct professor of strategy and finance at Mendoza College of Business, he has logged thousands of volunteer hours, shepherding students around the world. 

Dunbar counted each step of the journey. “Together, we literally walked over 1,800 miles with our partners in Uganda,” he said. “We witnessed their compassion for the children and recognized their expertise. In the end, we didn’t just give them recommendations. We jointly collaborated to come up with solutions.” 

A group of 14 people, six from the University of Notre Dame, gather for a photo in Sri Lanka.Guinan was formerly a Frontlines student on a project in Sri Lanka aiming to find a sustainable revenue model for youth involved in a post-war reconciliation center. John Dunbar was his advisor that semester. A manager in account-based marketing with a heart for service, Guinan keeps a photograph captured by Dunbar in Sri Lanka, framed, in his Philadelphia living room. In Uganda, Guinan stepped into the role of advisor for the first time, offering his marketing know-how and his steadying presence just months before welcoming a baby girl with his wife, Rachel. 

Frontlines’ Mission in Uganda

Over two weeks, the Frontlines Uganda team crisscrossed the country with Henry Mulondo and Isaac Wamala, two remarkably dedicated Ugandan staff members at Frontlines’ in-country partner, Building Tomorrow, a Ugandan nonprofit dedicated to community-powered learning that has helped reach over 300,000 learners through its literacy and numeracy programming since 2018.  . 

UNICEF reports that only one in four children attend secondary school in Uganda Further, all students missed a full two years of learning due to the pandemic. 

The Frontlines team’s mission was to recommend how Building Tomorrow, the team’s primary in-country partner, could more effectively organize, deploy and scale an enthusiastic national network of CEVs, formalized groups of more than 6,000 locals who help boost attendance, reading and math skills through engaging extracurricular games and activities. In just this year alone, Building Tomorrow has implemented  innovative curricular programming serving nearly 200,000 learners in its vision to advance literacy and numeracy.

How Advisors are Preparing Students for the Field 

Each Frontlines cohort’s journey is structured around a semester-long course: The international Business on the Frontlines focuses on an overseas project, while a more recently added domestic Frontlines in America offers impactful opportunities to support organizations in the United States.  

For Business on the Frontlines courses, every project is matched with an in-country nonprofit or company, which the teams refer to as “the partner,” while the local communities the partner serves are “the clients.” 

For BOTFL, advisors initially meet with the class during a weekend retreat in South Bend and then provide virtual support over Zoom, making themselves available for student problem-solving sessions, planning meetings and troubleshooting. When the team travels to the community to conduct interviews and on the ground research an advisor’s job is to accompany the students. 

Kelly (Chase) Rubey (MBA ‘16), associate teaching professor of Management & Organization at Mendoza College of Business, has taught the BOTFL course each spring since 2021. 

A former IBM client executive, Kelly draws on her corporate skillset daily at Notre Dame. “At IBM, I spent my time understanding my clients’ businesses, scoping and delivering on innovative projects, and building relationships,” she said. “At Notre Dame, I use those same skills but apply them towards my passion of building a more inclusive global economy.” 

Now in her fourth year of teaching, Rubey continues to treat her students like new IBM recruits: challenging them to take risks, work together to problem solve and iterate solutions in class. Her intention is that in addition to community impact through the course projects, her students will have a personally transformational experience that they will always remember as they go off into their careers.

Rubey has observed that bringing in advisors offers another level of real-world experience to the students. “In all of our projects, we are building market-based solutions and so the best people to be a coach in those situations are business practitioners,” she explained. 

Offering Real Life Business Coaching on the Ground

In Uganda, Dunbar encouraged each student to momentarily imagine themselves as a doctor. “If the patient says their arm hurts, you have to see how those muscles connect to the rest of the body.”  His role became to ask the team broader questions that pushed them to go beyond the basics of simply offering actionable recommendations to further structure the CEV program. 

“Notre Dame students are really bright. They get problem solving very well and often move to conclusions quickly,” he said. “However,  I like to ask them if they’ve looked at the bigger financial and strategic picture if they understand how the organization is structured and what motivates the people inside of it.” 

While Dunbar leaned into the core financials and structural organization of Building Tomorrow, Guinan pushed the team to understand the factors that motivated the CEVs and how tapping into them could lead to stronger outcomes. 

“I drew on my knowledge of the Incentive Theory of Motivation, which suggests that intrinsic motivation isn't always enough, and that humans will look to seek pleasure and avoid pain,” Guinan said. “So, we spent a lot of time in Uganda trying to identify meaningful incentives and rewards that would drive CEV motivation.” 

As a result, the team got deep into the weeds investigating whether the CEV group sought recognition, money, additional training or the authority of a title — information that directly impacted the final recommendations. 

Delivering answers on a Frontlines project is never an easy fix. Sometimes the problems are complex and overwhelming with no clear path forward. 

Dunbar said that the most challenging experience he and Terri have been through with students occurred in Lebanon in 2020 as COVID was spreading globally. “We were called to a meeting with a group of Lebanese farmers in a hot, hot room. They were all in suits and telling us: ‘We need help. We’re going to starve to death. Will you help us?” 

He shakes his head. “How do you respond to that?” 

Since that time, a port explosion in Beirut shook the country’s stability and the lira collapsed, but Frontlines’ partner on the ground, food exporter Cortas, has nimbly begun selling its products outside the country. “It’s thriving and they are creating jobs now,” Dunbar said. “But, boy, was that a challenging one for us to navigate at the time.” 

In the case of Building Tomorrow, Guinan, Terri and John Dunbar had to remind the team that recommendations should be “bigger than a breadbox but smaller than a barn,” meaning that actionable steps should be broad enough in scope to make a difference but not so sweeping that they would take years to implement.

Ultimately, short-term recommendations included standardizing how every CEV is trained and managed, offering them community recognition and forging better communication with the local Catholic church, public health organizations and other civil society entities with a connection to the government. Building Tomorrow has already started to implement some of the team’s suggestions for formalizing the CEV model, such as coalition building and developing impact measurement and reporting tools. 

The true power of the project goes much deeper than these frameworks. “The most impactful interactions are actually unprovoked conversations,” said Guinan. “You’re playing cricket with kids in Sri Lanka. You’re paying for your water at a little bodega in Uganda and you stop to speak to the cashier for a moment.” 

It’s these opportunities that often offer the greatest insight into daily life, its challenges and potential solutions. 

“Showing up for partners and community members, getting to know them over a meal, truly hearing their story — that means something,” Guinan said. “For students to witness that impact is something I trust will stay with them as they become emerging business leaders.”