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How MBA Students Can Get International Experience

LAST FALL, 23-YEAR-OLD Caroline Wimbleton arrived in Madrid to work in marketing management for Allianz Partners, a global insurance and assistance company.

She didn’t know anyone in the city, but she knew enough about office culture in Spain to listen carefully in meetings before jumping into the fray. In the U.S., she says, “there is a much stronger sense of self, which is reflected in the dominant leadership style.” In contrast, she knew that leaders in Spain tend to prioritize getting collective input rather than that of just one central person.

Wimbleton credits her ease in working with people from different countries and cultures to a new 10-month program she completed in 2018 that simultaneously earned her two business master’s degrees and a certificate from schools on three continents.

A partnership between the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, Lingnan (University) College at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, and ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, the program sends students to live and study as a cohort at all three institutions for stints ranging from nine to 15 weeks.

Participants take globally focused courses and study the unique aspects of doing business in the U.S., China and the European Union. Graduates earn a master’s in global commerce from UVA, a master’s in global strategic management from ESADE and a certificate in international business from Lingnan. The program debuted in 2016, and the class graduating in 2019 includes 54 students from 13 countries.

UVA’s program reflects a growing trend among U.S. business schools to beef up their international offerings for students who want to prepare themselves for a more interconnected global economy. Though elite U.S. business schools are still a big draw to students from other countries, in recent years they have lagged behind their foreign counterparts in global academic offerings.

But that trend is starting to turn around as U.S. business schools aggressively reimagine their standard MBA curricula. Many schools have introduced globally focused courses such as Chinese Economy and Financial Markets at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Israel: Startups and Venture Capital at Harvard Business School.

And since 2016, all full-time MBA students at the Yale School of Management have been required to take a course called Global Virtual Teams, in which they work online with students from a network of international schools to tackle critical business issues. Students might oversee a hypothetical production line, say, making key operations management decisions while getting a feel for working across cultures and time zones.

Other institutions are expanding their efforts now with deep immersion programs, academic alliances with global partners and even a brand-new global business school – all designed to attract more international students and turn domestic ones into culturally sensitive – and effective – multinational business leaders.

Though study-abroad options have been standard fare for years, business schools at Pennsylvania State University, Dartmouth College, Harvard and Rice University have made them core requirements, often in the form of short immersion trips.

Though Rice has required so-called global immersion programs for its executive MBA students for a few years, starting with the fall 2018 entering class, all MBAs need to complete a mandatory 10-day Global Field Experience before graduating.

Much of that time is “dedicated to intensive experiential coursework (including working with in-country experts and business leaders to solve real problems), along with meaningful cultural immersion” and “a strategic focus on the big picture,” all combined in an experience they can enjoy with their classmates, says Barbara Bennett Ostdiek, senior associate dean of degree programs.

Current students have the option of traveling to either Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia; or Mexico City, and Ostdiek expects a continued emphasis on emerging and frontier markets in the years ahead.

The Stern School of Business at New York University still makes international academic experiences optional for most MBA students, but a new one-year fashion-and-luxury MBA requires an intensive week in Milan. This includes a mix of study (class topics include the fine food industry in Italy and the evolution of Italian brands), corporate visits (Lamborghini in Bologna and the Mantero Silk Factory in Como), plus a final project that challenges student teams to create an American marketing plan for an Italian retailer looking to expand its presence in the U.S. market.

MBAs in Stern’s traditional two-year program can also opt for one- or two-week “Doing Business in” offerings held in about a dozen countries, including Australia, Israel and South Africa. They talk to academics, make company visits and have cultural experiences.

Many students also partner with faculty and go abroad to help solve a real-world business problem through Stern Solutions’ experiential learning projects. A former group collaborated with the World Wildlife Fund and the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah municipality to launch the country’s first national park. Students spent two weeks in the UAE before the start of the semester, then they worked to come up with a strategy before presenting it by videoconference.

Much of the new business school emphasis on global studies is coming in master’s degree programs, which are fast-growing as an alternative to the MBA.

Reflecting this trend, UVA’s McIntire program places significant emphasis on tapping the expertise of each school and its locale in the partnership.

Business students start at McIntire, where they take advantage of working with a foreign company doing business in the U.S. to study global strategic management, global market research and cross-cultural decision-making. After 15 weeks, students move on to China, where they focus on global finance and operations, and take advantage of visiting high-tech companies in Hong Kong and southern China. Finally, at ESADE in Spain, they focus on entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, and innovation and global alliances.

The program is taught in English in all three countries. Students in the coming year will pay approximately $37,400 in tuition, plus roughly $11,000 in housing expenses for the 10 months. Travel expenses are not included. Members of the 2018-2019 class of five dozen students live together during their time on all three continents in cross-cultural residences.

There’s also a strong emphasis on group work in all classes, so students “are teaching each other all the time” in both formal and less formal ways, says Amanda Cowen, director of McIntire’s M.S. in Global Commerce Program. The cohort has organized an international cooking night, and students often travel to each other’s homes over holiday breaks to experience local celebrations and traditions.

“They’re developing a global network of relationships that continues to be important as they move into their careers,” Cowen says. Graduates of the inaugural class have landed jobs at a range of companies including Amazon, Google, Marriott International, Rolls-Royce, Volvo and GSK.

The Yale SOM is also exploring dual-degree partnerships via its new master’s initiative, called M2M, along with four other schools: the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, HKUST Business School in Hong Kong, HEC Paris and Brazil’s FGV Escola de Administração de Empresas de São Paulo.

Students simultaneously earn master’s degrees at two of the participating schools in a two-year program and have access to both schools’ alumni networks. Giving students the skills to work in a global marketplace is “what recruiters tell us they’re looking for,” says David Bach, Yale SOM’s deputy dean.

Enrollees pay the tuition costs of whichever institutions they attend. Yale’s annual tuition and fees for 2018-2019 run about $71,600, while the total cost for a student at HEC Paris, for example, runs about $29,000. Travel and living expenses are not included.

The growing interest in international degrees has even led to the creation of a new global MBA school – so new it doesn’t even have its own campus yet. The Asia School of Business is a partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank of Malaysia. The 82 first- and second-year students currently enrolled represent 21 different countries.

The program is heavily experiential. “We are teaching (students) how to go into a country they’ve never been in before and build a business, build networks,” says Charles Fine, founding president and dean of the Asia School of Business and a professor of management at MIT.

The program is based in Kuala Lumpur, where classes are currently held in the central bank’s training center while a campus is being built. Over the course of four to five weeks out of each 14-week semester, student teams travel to different countries in Southeast Asia to work with companies on projects.

Some recently went to Myanmar, for example, to help Procter & Gamble figure out how to market hair care and skin care products there. Students also spend six weeks in the U.S. They first visit New York City, then spend about a month in residence at MIT.

The courses in Malaysia cover typical MBA topics like finance and marketing, but students have to be nimble, as scheduling often depends on when MIT professors are able to travel abroad. A course on finance, for instance, might be broken up into several weeklong modules taught in the fall, winter and spring. MIT faculty split teaching duties with a group of 13 local faculty members, who come from 10 different countries.

For now, the classes, all taught in English, are “almost all aligned with MIT Sloan content and are not particularly Asia-specific,” Fine says, though they will likely become more specialized as the school recruits and develops more professors locally.

The program lasts 20 months and costs roughly $100,000, including campus housing, travel and lodging costs incurred for the trip to the U.S. Graduates receive an MBA from ASB and a certificate from MIT Sloan.

When she learned about the MIT program, Klara Markus, 29, was already working in Vietnam for Quad Learning, a U.S.-based education tech startup, after working for it in Washington, D.C., and thinking about business school.

“I get the structured learning environment of cases but then I get to balance it with actually doing stuff, and I get to travel to different countries across Southeast Asia,” Markus says, speaking by phone from Bangkok, where she was at an end-of-semester school symposium. “There’s really no downside.” Markus has a political science degree from Yale and has been able to use the ASB experience to win a spot in a leadership development program in the U.S., which should open up more career options for her.

While students may miss some of the traditional opportunities that standard MBA programs might offer, like large and long-established job fairs, 2019 ASB graduate Dante Zannoni, 31, notes that he has gotten more travel and project-based experience than many students in traditional programs.

“Right now I’m at a steel mill in Vietnam, and before that I was at a Bangkok bank, one of the largest financial institutions in Southeast Asia,” Zannoni says. At a manufacturer in Penang, Malaysia, early in his program, he and his team were able to find upward of $200,000 in cost savings in the company’s operations. “It was way more impactful than spending each day just going over cases that have happened in the past,” Zannoni says.

What do potential employers make of students who can bring international experience with their degree? “They find it very enticing,” says Ally Van Deuren, university relations lead for North America with Korn Ferry, an executive search and recruiting firm.

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