Yale Curriculum: International Experience
One group of students spent a day in Tel Aviv, touring the plant of one of the world’s largest makers of generic pharmaceuticals. Another group met executives from Russian oil company TNK-BP and heard about the challenges faced by an international joint venture. A third visited a Singaporean entity that has turned the country’s weakness — a lack of fresh water — into a business that draws drinking water not just out of the ocean, but out of thin air.
All three groups were part of the SOM International Experience, a required trip for first-year students that sent eight groups to eleven countries in early January, where they spent just under two weeks immersing themselves in new and evolving business environments. The objective of the trips is to provide MBA students with a better perspective on the functioning of the increasingly global economy.
In each country, students met with the leaders of banks, oil companies, stock exchanges, and multinationals, nonprofits, and governments, but also followed entrepreneurs turning what outsiders would call hardships, into opportunities. “We were introduced to one entrepreneur in Romania who started with a single bakery, built that up, and then opened an electronics store and then a few hotels,” said Jaime Carlson ’09. “After that he bought a ski resort and eventually the national soccer team. He was unique — he was always saying that Romania is fantastik — but there was a sense there that life began in 1989, with the fall of the Communist government. There was this optimism from the new generation — which could appreciate what their parents had gone through, but weren’t bound by it — to project a new vision for Romania.”
Each student group had a unique experience. Those on the Costa Rica trip delved into ecotourism, while the India group wrestled with the strain of hyper-growth on infrastructure, learning a concrete lesson when they missed a meeting with the planning commissioner because of an epic traffic jam. Each trip was tied into the Yale integrated MBA curriculum, which stresses an interdisciplinary approach to solving business problems in a complex, interdependent world. "One of the great aspects of the International Experience is that it makes clear that, in so many parts of the world, there is a real need for individuals who embody the mission of the school, ‘to educate leaders for business and society,’” said Dean Joel Podolny, who led the trip to Russia and Romania. “One can’t impact business without impacting society. What’s needed are leaders who are fully cognizant of the social impact of their actions as they lead their organizations.”
In Israel, this played itself out through the smoldering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trip to Israel and Turkey focused on healthcare but also grappled with the challenges that political situations can pose to businesses. Yulee Newsome ’09 said this was just a concept until he met with Israelis and Palestinians to talk about running successful businesses in a place where checkpoints are part of everyday life and women are searched because they may be carrying explosives instead of a baby. “The lessons learned were not ones you can effectively teach in a classroom,” said Newsome. “It’s really nice to be able to go in depth about a discounted cash flow, but how often do you get to meet Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and see this in context? The very environment you work in has a huge impact on how you do business.”
To ensure that those on the International Experience trips were exposed to new business situations, students were required to travel to a country they’d never visited before. The days were intense, with meetings and tours lasting from early morning until evening. In South Africa, students visited major banks in the heart of Johannesburg and then traveled to poor suburbs, where small entrepreneurs sold cell phone minutes out of shipping containers. “We went from a five-star hotel in Johannesburg to a shantytown where there wasn’t even running water,” said Kelly Smith ’09. “You could definitely see the dramatic distinctions between the haves and have-nots. We began to understand the challenges that the country faces in trying to create a middle class and do so quickly, particularly in the context of AIDS, the lingering impact of apartheid, and how there’s essentially a very small educated black population. The problems are enormous.”
The meetings varied, from a boardroom in Beijing to a university in Istanbul to a Romanian ski resort. But learning wasn’t restricted to formal meetings. Faculty who led each trip encouraged students to continue the conversations after the meetings ended, whether on the bus to the next event or in the evenings, as they sampled each country’s cultural offerings. “The bus rides were often as illuminating as the presentations themselves,” said Dave Bledin ’09, who traveled to Russia and Romania. “It allowed us to hold a mirror up to what we’re doing at SOM, to find the bigger issues at stake, to think about how businesses really operate. And it was a real bonding experience. We all got to know each other much better than we could just meeting in the SOM hallways.”
Madeline Ravich ’09 said these moments were only enhanced by the interaction with senior SOM faculty — in her case, Dean Podolny. “On the last night in Moscow we got together in the hotel lobby, and he asked each of us to share our views on the trip,” she said. “No one had the same experience so it was really interesting to hear what each of us had learned. It was the ideal way to end the trip.”
Once back, students gave presentations on what they’d learned. A group that went to China discussed how the lack of a delivery network forced Lucky Pai, a TV home shopping network started by three members of the SOM Class of 1996, to employ their own fleet of vans to get products out to the countryside. Another set of students laid out the struggle of indigenous Namibia people to gain royalties for the appetite-suppressant properties of a plant – called the hoodia – that they’d been using to facilitate trips across cross the desert for thousands of years.
Dan Droller ’09 said the government of Namibia has been working to acquire royalties for numerous plants — including Devil’s Claw, the marula tree, and the Kalahari melon — whose properties are prized in western countries. This approach, he said, marks a departure from old relationships between developing and developed economies. “In the past, westerners would come in and take something and that would’ve been that,” he said. “This attempt to extract royalties for the indigenous people is a completely different business model — one I think is possible only in the developing world. I don’t know how going to Namibia will directly help me in the future, but I know the experience will allow me to approach business problems from a different perspective. The trip as a whole was fantastic, but that insight alone made it worth it.”