M.B.A. Field Trips
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
It was the kind of take-home lesson an M.B.A. student could not get in a classroom.
While he was in Soweto, South Africa, an economically challenged black township, Oliver Hahl, a student at the Yale School of Management, says he heard of people "squirreling away money in a mattress" and "using the money as soon as possible" to avoid falling prey to robbers.
During that same trip in January, Hahl learned of a possible entrepreneurial solution: The chief executive of Standard Bank, one of South Africa's biggest financial institutions, described an A.T.M. powered by a battery-which would solve two major problems: Soweto's unreliable electricity service and the nearest bank machine's being about 12 miles away.
"It was impressive to see the vision that the bank's leaders shared in South Africa,' Hahl, 29, says. "They understood that their business strategy could be linked profitably with society's development."
These international trips are becoming more common as Yale and other business schools including Stanford and Tulane, as well as M.I.T.'s Sloan Fellows Program in Innovation and Global Leadership, now require their M.B.A. candidates to travel abroad-a week or longer-to gain real-life experience in the new global economy. Students meet local business leaders, conduct presentations, and even work for short stints.
"There was a time when American corporations like General Motors, General Electric, and I.B.M. were reigning models for education," says Doug Rae, the Yale School of Management professor whose committee created the new international-travel requirement for the M.B.A. curriculum, which was adopted last fall.
With globalization, the view that M.B.A. students need to study only American business no longer holds, he says. Most Yale M.B.A. graduates require international experience no matter what they do, whether it's overseas dealmaking, marketing, or outsourcing, he notes.
Stanford's revised M.B.A. curriculum, which debuts in September, will also include a global-experience requirement, says administrator Grace Yokoi, so students will "really understand what it means to be living in a global economy."
Stanford M.B.A. hopefuls must embark on either a student-led study tour, a service-learning trip (meeting socially minded entrepreneurs), or a "global-management-immersion experience" (a four-week internship).
But what do students say they get out of these faraway field trips?
Brian Murphy, a graduate of Tulane's M.B.A. program, says that his trip to China, where his classmates and their peers in Beijing exchanged ideas in both English and Chinese, "really put you in the shoes of an international consultant having to present ideas to business leaders from two different countries"-skills he will tap for his employer, KPMG, on international assignments.
Hahl says his travel to South Africa and Tanzania drew more attention from job recruiters "when they heard that it wasn't the usual M.B.A. party trip." The visit, he says, "made me more marketable because it reinforced my ability to deal with international settings."
While M.B.A. candidates with the inclination to travel have for some time ventured abroad between semesters or spent a term in London or Paris, the new travel mandates are as varied as their destinations. At Stanford, student leaders volunteer to arrange the group excursions for approximately 30 of their peers, who get to pick from more than 15 destinations ranging from Australia to Sweden. At Yale, faculty design the trips, which offer a choice of eight foreign itineraries. While exposure to foreign C.E.O.'s speaking about their businesses is typical, the Yale trips go beyond that to provide on-the-scene demonstrations of economic trends, focusing on topical issues such as congestion pricing in London or ecotourism in Costa Rica.
This required M.B.A. travel may not be just an isolated experience but, instead, may be linked to or tapped in class. Stanford is offering a first-semester course, the Global Context of Management, to prepare students for their travels with a framework for "reading" a country's business culture.
And at Yale, for example, Hahl was asked to draw upon his Africa trip in a subsequent Innovator class, a part of the new core curriculum that focuses on how managers generate fresh ideas, services, and products. He had to recall something striking from his trip and apply it to another context.
"Try to pinpoint exactly what makes it novel," the assignment requested. "Can you leverage it for a creative business, cultural, or socially responsible idea?"
Because Hahl had also worked in Brazil, he suggested that battery-powered A.T.M.'s would benefit the favelas, or shantytowns, of big cities like Rio de Janeiro.
At Stanford, students will also draw on their shared travel experiences in subsequent classes and when formulating career options, Yokoi expects, adding that one goal is gaining experience in interacting with businesspeople of different cultures-even in asking them tough questions.
Tulane's M.B.A. travel requirement, perhaps the most extensive, comes with direct curricular tie-ins-before and during. (The silver lining to Hurricane Katrina's storm cloud is that the 2005 shutdown of the New Orleans campus gave administrators time to revise the curriculum.) Tulane now mandates three international trips, each following a semester-long course on a region: a visit to Monterrey, Mexico, after Latin American study; a Paris excursion after a course on Europe; and an expedition to Beijing following an Asia course. (This fall, Tulane kicks off another specialized international-M.B.A. program requiring more travel: trips to six foreign countries and study at three universities abroad.)
In Mexico and France, Tulane students meet their counterparts, who have been working on similar cases. In Beijing, Chinese university students join the Tulane crowd. All participate in three-hour "case competitions" (solving hypothetical scenarios) with presentations required in Chinese and English. Those not fluent in Chinese must make other arrangements, relinquishing control to a Chinese speaker.
"It does give the monolingual person a sense of disadvantage," says Bill Sandefer, director of admissions at Tulane's Freeman School of Business, and a chance to "see the advantage that students who spoke Chinese and English had."
A firm believer in field-based learning as a requirement for M.B.A.'s, Professor Yasheng Huang of M.I.T. says, "A huge challenge, however, is to avoid doing superficial tourism" and maintain intellectual rigor. Huang has led some of the trips the Sloan fellows must take-to strategic global-business regions to meet with top managers, typically at Western or large domestic firms-but he also designs a trek of his own, taking regular M.B.A. students (who are not required to travel) to Yunnan Province, one of China's poorest regions. This "in-depth exploration of the real economic and social issues of China" visits startups in low-tech sectors, he says. "Firmly rooted in the home economies," these firms "matter far more to the welfare of the people in developing countries" and employ locals without much education, he adds. Such trips reveal "how businesses can help reduce poverty [and] entrepreneurs can navigate the complicated bureaucratic system to get financing."
Yokoi of Stanford says, "We can talk about differences in management styles in Asia and the U.S. all you want in the classroom. But not until you go there and learn from practitioners-experience it firsthand-[do you] really start to understand."
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