A World of Difference: Spotlight on International Experiences

By Mary A. Dempsey
Published: Fall 2010

GW School of Business students traveled to Sweden earlier this year to provide marketing advice to green technology companies. As soon as they landed, however, it was clear that this international experience was about more than just business.

For starters, the MBA students not only discussed green technology, they lived it. Their hotel rooms held an array of recycling bins; even their room keys were biodegradable. They shuttled to meetings on public transit. And, with some astonishment, they learned that Swedish executives disconnect completely from smart phones, e-mail and computers while on vacations that routinely last five or six weeks.

“They saw that people in Sweden—and other countries—have a different work-life balance,” said Anna Helm, assistant professor of international business, who organized the trip. “And they also learned, despite the differences, that they could work in an international business environment.”

“International” has become the buzzword at GWSB, which is weaving more—and more intriguing—global experiences into its offerings for students. In addition to the traditional Study Abroad programs offered by the University, undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Business have signed up for business-focused semester-long exchange programs in France, short-term exchanges in Germany, two-week residencies from Korea to Serbia and summer internships in India and China. Helm’s students, who used the trip to Sweden to fulfill an overseas residency required of all Global MBA candidates, received rave reviews from their clients and the Swedish-American Chambers of Commerce spotlighted the students’ work in its newsletter.

Research centers and institutes housed within GWSB offer students another dimension to the international experience with overseas work and research opportunities of their own.

“I’d love to require that all undergraduates in the School of Business immerse themselves in an international experience,” said Larry Singleton, associate dean of Undergraduate Programs. “These overseas experiences are not just about coursework. Students also go on site visits to companies to learn what corporate managers face in other countries. They are immersed in another country, in another culture, in another way of doing business.”

Singleton made the comments a day before he flew to Argentina to explore a possible partnership with the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. He said many students are drawn to the GWSB precisely because of its international emphasis.

A decade ago, the School began offering a fall semester of core business courses for undergraduates at the prestigious Sciences-Po Paris. Then came a two-week Nordic Study Abroad initiative focused on marketing. More recently, Italy’s Bocconi University, one of Europe’s leading schools of economics, entered a partnership that allows GWSB undergrads to study in Milan. Another collaboration in the works will let undergraduate students study in Florence, Italy, at a facility run by Kent State University.

“We hope to establish similar programs for international business in Beijing and elsewhere,” Singleton said.

If undergraduate studies are where GWSB students get their first taste of the international business landscape, then graduate work is where they bring the lessons home.

“As the world globalizes, students must be exposed to international concepts,” said Bryan Andriano, associate director of International Education and Programs in the Graduate Programs office. “We do that in many forms—from corporate social responsibility courses in London to international marketing in Dubai, from interactions of one or two weeks in other countries and at other universities to rigorous credit-based, semester-exchange programs.”

The Global MBA curriculum is the standout in this area. Its international business projects are not academic exercises but actual work assignments for real clients. Over the past year, students have provided consulting expertise to companies as diverse as textile producers in Turkey, a turbine manufacturer in South Korea and a Spanish motor-scooter maker. In May, Romi Bhatia, an adjunct professor of international business, accompanied 17 students to Mexico City for meetings focused on two microfinance projects based in Monterrey, Mexico.

Three-year-old Credituyo, a small Monterrey-based lending institution, which makes small loans to poor Mexicans trying to set up businesses, asked the students for help on two fronts. It sought to expand beyond small loans to become a regulated, deposit-taking financial institution. And it wondered, could technology, such as banking via mobile phones, enhance its operations and lower costs?

For its part, Caja San Nicolás, a longestablished credit union, wanted to enter the microfinance market by offering small loans for home improvement so that the poor, who are not traditionally targeted for such services, could bolster their assets.

“Credituyo and Caja San Nicolás came to the GW campus earlier in the year. After that, the students had ongoing contact via Skype, video-conferencing and e-mail until they all met again in Mexico,” Bhatia said.

The MBA candidates pored over bank financial statements, explored the range of products offered by microfinance entities around the world and researched the kind of technology that poor people use in Mexico. D.C.-based economist and remittance experts spoke with the students. Once in Mexico City, the students not only met with officials from the two financial institutions, but they also interviewed potential borrowers, professors and students at Mexican universities and small and medium enterprises capable of creating local jobs.

“Even if these students never work again in the microfinance sector, or ever return to Mexico, they have undergone two tremendous experiences: They have worked in an emerging country, and they have worked in an emerging sector,” Bhatia said.

Tapping The GWSB Network

Faculty, alumni and executives eager to guide students across the global business landscape enrich the travels of GWSB students. Jeffrey Spear, the owner of marketing consulting firm Studio Spear in Baltimore, is one of those executives.

Earlier this year, Spear traveled with 25 MBA students to Serbia, where he has clients. Spear’s students split into groups to work with food and beverage industry companies: a mushroom producer seeking to export to the United States, a frozen produce producer moving from bulk to retail sales, a fruit juice firm trying to boost its brand, an organic fruit preserves exporter broadening its markets in Sweden and the United States, and a tea maker expanding its product line.

The results? “The clients were very impressed and I was impressed,” he said. “On several occasions they knocked my socks off.”

While most international experiences unfold quietly, some have drawn considerable attention. Ian Cropp signed up for one of those: traveling with Sport Management Professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti to the Vancouver Olympics. The Vancouver trip marked the 10th Olympic Games that Delpy Neirotti has attended with students.

Cropp, MBA, ’11, left sports writing to enroll at GWSB. He said his journalism career included coverage of winter sports, but the Vancouver trip revealed the behind-thescenes business that keeps the games running.

“I was introduced to sports agents for athletes and companies like Nike,” he said. “I got to chat with Coke’s sports marketing guy who set up the World Cup arrangements. We met with everybody—from the British Columbia Finance Ministry, who talked to us about whether the Olympics make money or not, to hospitality, food and transportation people.”

Cropp didn’t limit himself to one international experience; not long after returning from the Olympics, he went to South Korea with 19 other students and Daniel Leipziger, professor of international business and a former World Bank economist. Half the students worked on a windturbine project with Hyosung Corp. The rest were assigned to SK Energy, which seeks to develop lithium-ion batteries.

“You don’t get the opportunity to go to Korea very often,” Cropp said. “And it’s such a distinctive business environment, the way government interacts with business and the public is involved with grassroots efforts.”

Another student, Jeremy Dommu, MBA, ’11, documented the South Korea trip in his “MBA Journal” for BusinessWeek magazine.

Students Without Borders

MBA student Kate Heath also signed up for an overseas residency, traveling to Turkey in 2009. But she wanted more.

“I wanted to give myself enough time to experience true cultural immersion and develop my language skills. Anything shorter than three months would have been insufficient,” said Heath, who graduated in May 2010 after undergoing a January-March exchange at ESSEC Business School in France.

She studied luxury retail strategy with the former chief operating officer of Armani France and advertising with the former worldwide advertising director at Renault. Heath, who now works as a strategy analyst at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said the international experiences helped with her job hunt.

“Studying abroad is far less common among MBAs [than students in other disciplines] and having it on my resume made me an instant standout,” said Heath, who founded GWSB’s International Business Club in 2009. “It showed that I was willing to go outside of my comfort zone and, more importantly, be successful there.

“It offered evidence of my language capabilities, developed my cross-cultural sensitivity, enhanced my understanding of the non-American perspective and increased my desire to maximize my education,” she added. “And of course, for those who are pursuing international work, it obviously lends credence to your candidacy. It says ‘This is a person who has lived abroad, knows the joys and challenges firsthand and wants to go back.’ ”

Foreign students studying at GWSB add yet another dimension to the global business formula. “In our Global MBA program, 30 percent to 40 percent of the student body is international,” Andriano said.

Kjell Marc Bernsmann earned an MS in Finance from the European Business School in Germany, his home country. But he spent the final semester of the program at GWSB.

“International exposure helps your personal development… and also supports your resume. Without international exposure through a semester abroad or internships, I am sure I would have had problems getting a job in the finance area in Europe,” said Bernsmann, who also spent a semester in New Zealand while pursuing his bachelor’s degree.

He said the time at GWSB allowed him to make “invaluable connections.” He now works as a mergers and acquisitions analyst in the Investment Banking Division at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt.

But even as Bernsmann learned about the United States while at GWSB, his fellow students learned from him.

“Every time you get in a classroom with students who are not the same as you, your perspective becomes bigger, your knowledge becomes broader,” Singleton said. “We want our students to be ready to take on the world.” GW