Bridging Cultural Gaps

By Tanya Schevitz
Portraits by Thomas Vo

Trans-Global Executive MBA Gives Students Real-life Lessons

Shannon Eng, International Program Assistant, UCSF: A visit to a business park in Slovenia brought unexpected insights.

As consultants to a fledgling organic produce and products supply chain for poor farmers in rural India, Cory Haynes and his business team thought it was obvious that technology would make the pipeline to market run efficiently. But the group quickly learned the realities of the area for their project, where some people live on less than $2 a day and many of the streets are dirt.

“The cost for human labor is lower in this region, so it did not make sense to apply all the Western technology solutions, when in fact it was more feasible to use an existing mode of transportation, the beast of burden, for elements within the supply chain,” says Haynes, 34, a product manager at Barclays Global Investments in San Francisco.

The experience was an eye-opening lesson in the sensitivities and flexibility required in the international world of business for Haynes and his classmates in the new Trans-Global Executive MBA (T-GEMBA) program at Saint Mary’s.

The College has had an executive MBA program since 1975. The internationally focused T-GEMBA program was launched in June 2008 in response to a growing recognition that global experience is vital to successful businesses.

The traditional MBA program takes two years, but the executive program is accelerated for working mid-career and senior managers. The 15-month T-GEMBA program, which now has 21 students, infuses an international perspective into all its courses and emphasizes practical learning. From mock negotiations with students from abroad to case studies on companies like IKEA and Toyota and a real-life consulting project in India, students examine the fundamentals of accounting, finance, economics, management and marketing through an international lens.

Students travel to Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Brussels, India and Thailand, where they study the economies and business and meet with industry and political leaders. Saint Mary’s also started a smaller program with 10 students in Graz, Austria, taught by the same professors. Those students traveled to California in July 2008 and attended a joint class with the American students. The two groups work on international case studies together and remain in frequent contact.

“In today’s world, the biggest and most important challenges we face are all global in scope to one extent or another,” says Marlene Johnson, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators in Washington, D.C.

“The exercise of moving beyond cultural comfort zones, collaborating with counterparts in other countries, studying foreign languages and in other ways internationalizing the learning experience is critical to producing a next generation of innovators and leaders.”

Global Perspective for All

Roy Allen, dean of College’s School of Economics and Business Administration, spoke at a recent business school commencement of the importance of introducing all the College’s business students — graduate and undergraduate alike — to international experience. All MBA students can travel to a Lasallian partner university in Barcelona for a joint program each summer, he said. Some undergraduates traveled with Allen in January to Lasallian universities in the Philippine cities of Manila, Lipa City and Dasmarinas.

“We began meeting in 2002 to discuss how to respond to the internationalization of business, which presents dramatic challenges and opportunities for managers in the 21st century, including increased competition from abroad, more unstable international financial circumstances…, adapting to rapid changes in technology and communications, rapidly changing rules for corporate governance and trading across borders, new multiculturalism and renewed attention to ethics in light of scandals at Enron and elsewhere,” he said.

The College is aiming to start an international program for undergraduates by 2011, says Shyam Kamath, associate dean for global programs in the business school and a T-GEMBA professor. SMC could partner with two Lasallian sister schools, De La Salle University in the Philippines and La Salle Barcelona. Saint Mary’s undergraduates in that program will study for one semester at each of the two institutions and complete a global social services management project such as those conducted by the T-GEMBA students.

“We are globalized today, so we want them to understand business in terms of a global world,” he says.

Seeing for Yourself

Even though T-GEMBA participant Shannon Rieko Eng has plenty of international experience through her work at UC San Francisco adapting HIV training programs for other countries, she was surprised how much her notions of business have changed through her experiences in the program.

When she heard that she and other T-GEMBA students would visit a technology park in Slovenia, she pictured a traditional Silicon Valley complex. But the bus wound through a lush, rural area much like the North Bay’s wine country and arrived at a set of office buildings with cows as a backdrop. The entrepreneurs they were meeting were a mishmash group of locals who had come to discuss their ideas.

“We pull up in a luxury bus and we come out and we are all wearing suits and they are in these hand-knit sweaters and jeans. But the ideas were incredible. Forget what you are wearing, it is about the core fundamentals of pure ideas,” says Eng, 29, program manager for UCSF’s HIV AIDS program in Mozambique. “Everybody says it is better to learn by seeing and doing but this was wild.”

During a recent conference call to develop an organizational management team contract with other business students from Albania, China and Austria, she was reminded again how important it is to be attuned to cultural differences.

“The woman in China was really soft-spoken. so it was a challenge at first not to talk over her. As Americans, we like to talk. We are kind of loud, and knowing that there are some cultures that are reserved you need to step back a little so they don’t get lost,” Eng says. “You always hear about it, but it is different when you are trying to develop a business plan.”

Eng says what she is learning at Saint Mary’s will help her to bridge the cultural gaps she faces in her job.

A Competitive Edge

The cohort in the 15-month T-GEMBA program cohort meets once a month for four days in a residential program at the San Ramon Conference Center, with assignments and exams between sessions. The first cohort ranges in age from 30 to 62, with an average work experience of about 18 years. Most are from the Bay Area, although a few travel from Sacramento and Los Angeles for the unique program.

Students say they were attracted to the program’s substantial international component because it would give them a strong competitive edge. And Haynes says that the rich mix of people in the cohort is the “special sauce” of the program because, “You learn from everyone.”

He points to a story from classmate Ken Munson that illustrated cultural differences that may otherwise seem minor. Munson, CEO of a strategic business development consulting company, in Sacramento, told the class that when he traveled to North China for an acquisition, the businessmen escorting his team said there was a four-star hotel “just up the street.” They then drove for two hours on country roads to arrive at a hotel that was “equivalent to a Motel 6 in Harlem,” says Munson, 45. The rooms were so bad that he slept in his suit bag with his suitcase over his head to protect himself from the cockroaches that came out when the lights were turned off.

Helping the Needy

Patricia Eaton, Development Director, Silicon Valley Independent Living Center: The opportunity to witness conditions in other countries was life-changing.

Another unique aspect of the T-GEMBA program is the service project to integrate the Lasallian principles of concern for the poor and social justice, Kamath says.

In the “Social Services Management” project, students work with global nonprofit and social services organizations to get hands-on experience in integrating business with social responsibility.

The students spend eight months working in teams of four or five on five different projects in India to help improve the lives of the poor by recommending sustainable and ethical businesses models and strategies. The student teams are consulting on micro-lending, rural supply chains, employment generation through the development and harvesting of commercially viable seaweed, and the establishment of a network of hospices for the poor that would also provide nursing education for destitute girls from rural areas.

“We are offering them a global business problem that has to be solved for a nonprofit. They recognize that they are going to change the lives of thousands of people,” Kamath says. “We are looking for people who will leave and make ethically responsible decisions on a global scale.”

All the students will travel to Bangalore, India, in August to make presentations to their clients before their graduation this October.

Patricia Eaton, 53, development director at the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center in San Jose, went to India in March with a small group of students to meet with clients of the hospice project. She says it was powerful to walk around and meet with people who are dying far from their families. She felt good to be able to help by using what she was learning in school.

“Seeing the potential of applying some of these concepts to global social problems is something that is built into all of us now. You just see things differently,” Eaton says. “You don’t forget something like that. It is really life-changing.”

Madeleine Green, vice president for international initiatives at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., said that most business schools now include some sort of international context. But the range of depth is huge, with the top end being a place like Saint Mary’s College.

“This is clearly an approach where they are engaged because they have a project. This looks like an interesting and quite valuable effort,” Green says. “I give them high marks.”

Experience is Key

Paul Martin, Manager of Finance, Vodafone: Traveled to India to find more efficient cash-management methods for micro-finance institutions.

Kamath says the program is hands-on because you do not need a business degree to be a successful business person. You need experience.

“You learn by doing. It is no use sitting in a classroom listening to theories by professors unless you go out and mess around and see where things need to be adjusted,” Kamath says.

For example, student Paul Martin, 48, who works in finance for global mobile phone operator Vodafone in Walnut Creek, says he was told by professors that instead of nodding to communicate “yes,” Indians do a head wiggle that looks more like “no.” But when he traveled to India with six classmates in March to meet with project clients, he was still confused by the head wiggle when he asked for a copy of the organization’s business plan.

“It was still unsettling to see the physical action in real life. You would think you could automatically translate, but it gave me a visceral uncomfortable feeling at first,” Martin recalls. “He said, ‘Sure Paul I can get that for you,’ but at the same time it appeared his head was wiggling back and forth side to side. My mind reacted to the words one way and the physical motion another way.”

Putting it to Work

Many students say they have already seen how they can apply what they’ve learned in T-GEMBA to their jobs.

Haynes says that when he worked at Morgan Stanley before joining Barclays in February, he was negotiating to manage a portfolio for a group of Austrians and Germans. Because he had worked with the European business students on a practice negotiation exercise bidding on construction of an energy plant, he knew not to spend time on the history and details of the value-added service his company could offer. Instead, he got straight to the bottom line.

“The cultural differences were clear. They want you to get right to the point and give your numbers,” Haynes says of the students in the mock negotiations. “They told us that if you take more than 10 minutes to let people know what the cost is, they will leave the room. It is not so much the nuts and bolts of business, it is really the culture. It is how you are communicating information and how you are receiving that information.

“I was actually able to apply it,” he says. “It was like, ‘wow.’ ”