Thursday, February 16, 2012

Quest to Vietnam, Hong Kong unforgettable adventure

Exotic business experiences and lasting lessons of cultures from which they are born offer unique perspectives for Executive MBA students who travel halfway around the world to engage in global markets. Vietnam, Ireland, Hong Kong and Dubai have all been exciting classrooms without walls for these graduate students. And, in June, South Africa will be added to the list as students leap to a new continent for the School of Business Administration.

EMBA students go where no SU cohert has ever been in Vietnam's Mekong Delta

The quest to Vietnam and Hong Kong last summer was an unforgettable adventure and success for the 18 students of the EMBA Program’s Cohort 7, who broadened and enriched their business careers and perspectives. “Sitting in the United States in an air-conditioned classroom is totally different from being embedded in the culture and seeing how things work first-hand,” said Kelly Glassburn of Windermere. “The trip helped close the loop on many concepts that we’ve been learning over the past year.”

Economic perspectives changed, sometimes radically, when students entered conference rooms to meet with leaders of industries like Nike, Danone, Geely (China’s largest auto manufacturer), ACCION International (the microfinance giant) and Li & Fung Limited, a 104-year-old, $12 billion dollar trade group.

Alicia Matheson looks back at Kelly Glassburn as they descent a Vietnam War combat cave.

Economic perspectives also changed, sometimes even more radically, outside corporate offices
where students bartered with street vendors for purses, watches, jewelry and souvenirs. “Bartering in the markets was a great illustration of real-life economics,” said Darcy Clark, of Celebration, who like Glassburn is a Disney manager. Other students, too, said impromptu bartering offered basic insight into how business is conducted within cultural context. That context was explored at historic sites, restaurants, nightclubs and other cultural opportunities.

In Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas of the world and an international finance center, the group saw Victoria Peak’s panoramic views, its monastery, Hong Kong Disneyland and large markets as they traveled by train, sampan, cable car, boat, funicular and bus. Students compared the city of 7 million to New York.

Chuck Rivas sports a Stetson backpack in the Vietnam jungle

Although the population is comparable, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in Vietnam was much different and spread over a much larger area than compact Hong Kong. Students met with numerous industry leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, but also made forays into the countryside to explore Viet Cong tunnels from the wars for independence, ride horse-drawn carts through rural villages, navigate narrow boats through the Mekong Delta and partake of uncommon foods such as whole elephant fish on a stick, unusual fruits and coconut candy made at a family business as students watched.

Non-business highlights were many, including an afternoon of community service in a Buddhist monastery and 90-minute Vietnamese massages of tea, reflexology, hot stones and a masseuse walking on students’ backs. Some students opted for the relaxing $15 experience every night.

The cohort visited nine businesses – four in Vietnam and five in Hong Kong – to gain a deeper appreciation of a common generic classroom phrase: “global business.” “Seeing those businesses while immersed in the cultures helped me appreciate what they were doing,” said Walter Kurlin, a business program facilitator for Disney whose hometown is Fort Lauderdale. “The cultural encounters were integral in wrapping that educational and cultural experience together.”

The cultural context put “understanding and respect” into the vast differences in business and life in America, said Terrence Tasior, a Disney finance manager. China’s economic importance was obvious. “It was evident with all the companies we visited,” he said. “No matter the question or topic, it almost always circled back to China.”

“Spending time with business leaders in a variety of industries was extremely valuable,” said Penny Miller of Clermont, a Human Resources partner for Disney. “The ability to ask questions about business opportunities and challenges and discover new points of view” was important to her.

“In the U.S. we tend to be very ethnocentric – our way is the right way,” said Glassburn, “but that’s an opinion hard to stand behind when you are embedded in a country, seeing a successful operation being conducted so differently than how it’s done back in the U.S.”

“We have to think of things differently,” said Norbert Dean of Mobile, Ala., a director of strategic sourcing at Disney World. “The best leaders will have to break down borders, not keep them up.”

The 19-month EMBA program is based at Stetson’s Center at Celebration and contains an international trip. Past cohorts visited Ireland, the Czech Republic and Dubai, but last summer’s trip was the first to include two countries. In South Africa this summer, Cohort 8′s itinerary includes mining, investments, wineries, manufacturing and marketing among business interests on the 11-day trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town.

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