ATLANTA — Coca-Cola recently hosted a special sendoff at its global headquarters for 93 young entrepreneurial college students from the Middle East, North Africa and Near Asia who completed a month-long learning and development program in the U.S.

In 2012, Coca-Cola and the U.S Department of State partnered with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University to support and empower the next generation of business and social entrepreneurs across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Now in its second year, the Coca-Cola MENA Scholarship Program provides college students with valuable business knowledge, lasting relationships and fuels their passion to make a difference.

The program recently expanded its reach to eight countries bringing together Afghan, Algerian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Pakistani, Palestinian and Tunisian students. They were selected from more than 7,000 applicants who submitted ideas about how to “Make Tomorrow Better” in their respective communities by either creating a new business or launching a new community initiative to meet local needs. The ideas were posted on each market’s Coca-Cola Facebook page, where the public voted for their favorite concepts. 

During the program, the students gained a broad understanding of American business practices through an accelerated, four-week curriculum at the Kelley School of Business. They worked in teams to develop business plans and presented their ideas first to a group of venture capital leaders in Indiana, then at the State Department before heading to their final destination: Atlanta.

There, the students enjoyed attractions such as the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and Stone Mountain before a private meeting with Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent, who saluted their accomplishments and offered constructive advice for their next endeavors. Several participants said this was the encouragement they needed before setting out to implement their entrepreneurship ventures.

MENA Scholars group photo

Muhtar Kent with a group of students from Morocco.

‘You Can Make a Difference’

For the students’ picture with Kent, all eight flags stood side-by-side at the company’s headquarters, showcasing the program’s commitment to cross-cultural exchange. A fervid champion of youth entrepreneurship, Kent spoke enthusiastically about the students’ future as tomorrow’s business and community leaders.

“I believe there’s never been a better time to be attending university and preparing for the world beyond,” he said. “And I can’t wait to see what great things you and your generation accomplish in the years ahead.”

It’s a future one student from Morocco is ready to lead. Nada Berrada says she hopes to “organize social ventures for students willing to help rural Moroccan communities.” And Berrada won’t stop there. She says she wants to become a Coca-Cola Ambassador because “Coca-Cola is not only about happiness, buts it’s also about inspiration.”

Berrada hopes to inspire her country, like Kent inspired her. She says Kent’s repeated emphasis on “’multiculturalism’ and bringing cultures together” resonated with her. “It is very obvious we live in a world that is diverse and the only way to transform or to make sure this diversity becomes a strength is to accept it and learn from it,” she says. “Multiculturalism is an incredible source of wealth and knowledge of difference that creates a tremendous change.”

One Afghan student echoed the learned importance of multiculturalism. Javid Rasooly said he is thankful the program expanded this year to include Afghan students. “For me personally, I came to meet people, to learn from people, to be exposed to other cultures and to other societies,” he added.

Following his speech, Kent opened the floor for questions and spoke about obtaining and sustaining success. He advised the future leaders to create small moments of happiness for others, to cherish relationships, to fuse cultures, and, lastly, to follow their instincts.  

“You can and will make a real difference, so stay in touch with each other… and with Coca-Cola,” Kent concluded.

The 2013 Coca-Cola MENA Scholarship Program may have ended, but the work for these scholars has just begun. The young entrepreneurs will set out to better their communities by applying business knowledge gained from the program.

“Coca-Cola means relationships,” Rasooly said. “They gave us this relationship… this connection that will last forever.”

Never Eat Alone

Drawing on lessons learned throughout his life and 30-year Coca-Cola career, Kent shared a few words of wisdom with the young entrepreneurs.

“Like you, I was given the great gift of meeting and befriending wonderful people from distant lands and all walks of life,” Kent told the students.

He offered four key pieces of advice:

1.      Never eat alone. Maintain and build your relationships, and always be open to meeting new people and learning from them. Personal connections are invaluable.

2.      Building a business—your own or someone else’s—is not about success. It’s about repeating success, again and again.

3.      Develop an abiding respect for cash. Keep some on you at all times. Touch it and feel it and know it’s real. Never let money become an abstraction.

4.      Learn something new every day. You’re either growing… or you’re losing ground. There’s no standing still.

“Remember also that this is your start-up phase – your chance to be a great agent for positive change,” Kent concluded. “Chances are, you won’t start out perfectly, but don’t see your missteps as mistakes. Instead, they’re opportunities for learning new perspectives.”