An International Education at the MBA Level
Just about every MBA program exposes its students to international ideas and global perspectives, if only in passing. There are usually faculty members who were born in different countries, or who are from the United States but spent some part of their careers living and working overseas. And there are almost always fellow students from around the globe, who contribute their own perspectives to discussions and projects.
But in recent years, more and more MBA programs have become very purposeful about including international experiences in their curricula. Most include courses about global business; many offer study-abroad components; and some even require courses that include overseas travel.
For instance, an MBA degree from St. Paul–based Hamline University may be tailored to focus on international management. MBA Director J. Dan Lehmann says there are two components to the global business courses his school offers. “One is the mechanics of doing business,” he says. “It’s often quite a bit different than it is in the United States. Not only are laws different, but transactions often are different—the financial relationships and the currency transactions. So you’ve got to appreciate that just from a transactional standpoint, you’ve got a little bit different environment than before. The other element that’s probably equally important to that is the cultural element. And we try to give our students an introduction to both sides.”
Why offer these options? Anne D’Angelo, assistant dean of global initiatives at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis, says students are looking for international experience. “I’m not on the recruiting side, but I connect well enough with our career center and with our MBA office to say, yes, they really do look for that,” she says. “And I think that really has to do with what the world of business is today. Whether you plan to work for a small family business or a large multinational company, professionals are competing with people around the world.” Marisa Krueger, senior manager, national broker and consultant relationships for UnitedHealthcare in Minnetonka, earned her MBA at Duluth-based College of St. Scholastica, capping her academic experience with a trip to Russia and Ukraine. She advises other MBA-seekers to go overseas as well.
“The international component is just a no-brainer to me,” Krueger says. “I think that it is a complement to any MBA program, because it gives you an opportunity to see the world, but also to apply some of the skills that you’ve learned. I think that moving forward in any kind of large corporation, having that international background is going to be a huge plus and a benefit on a resumÃ©, because more and more there are diverse populations in the U.S., and companies [are] expanding outside of the U.S.” Lehmann says that in other highly industrialized countries such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland, it’s a foregone conclusion that young managers in organizations will do a stint in a foreign office. The United State is an exception to this rule, but he suspects that is changing.
“A lot of companies are becoming increasingly global,” he says, “not only in selling their products overseas, like many of our Minnesota companies do, [but also] supplying some of their input from overseas. Even at smaller companies, it’s true.
The take-home lesson? If up-and-coming professionals want to be taken seriously by global employers, they probably ought to have some kind of international academic experience.
On the Spot
Monica Bringle is marketing manager for international parts at The Toro Company in Bloomington. When she embarked on her MBA studies several years ago, she already had some international experience under her belt. She spoke Spanish and Portuguese and had studied abroad as an undergraduate. But her then-employer, the Eaton Corporation, was setting up a back office in Pune, India, and Bringle wanted to gain some site-specific knowledge.
“That was part of the reason I signed up [at the Carlson School] the very first year they had their India seminar, leading up to a study-abroad in Bangalore,” she says. “It was a two-week session where we visited many of the American companies that were offshoring in Bangalore and visited different call centers, different engineering programs.”
She flew directly from Bangalore to Pune, where she and her colleagues interviewed candidates for the new office. “It really was eye-opening for me,” she says. “The biggest thing, I think, was learning the cultural nuances and seeing how business is done there. Indian culture is very friendly, and a lot of times, unlike America, they don’t like to tell you no. However, [the project] may not be ready or done to the degree you want it. So you have to ask more questions to find out what’s going on. It’s a different way of doing business.”
Relatively few MBA students seem to pick a program based on the location of a study-abroad course. But some choose programs based on the types of classes that are offered overseas. Stacy Langworthy, a University of St. Thomas MBA student near the end of her program, says she has done just about every study-abroad that St. Thomas offers: a course on financial institutions in Hong Kong, a class in London on risk management, and a two-week course on business law in Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. She’ll finish her program this coming January, traveling to South America for a class on international marketing.
D’Angelo says many foreign countries have a lot to teach American MBA students. “We do key topics such as business and the environment in Costa Rica,” she says. “We partner with INCAE, which is in Costa Rica and one of the top business schools in South America. It’s a highly rigorous academic program, and our students go there for two weeks and work with the students there. Costa Rica and the government and their business approach is steeped in sustainability and the environment. We also do corporate social responsibility in Scandinavia. Scandinavia is quite ahead in that regard. We work closely with faculty there in our partner schools as well.”
St. Cloud State University graduate Stephanie Handahl, a client strategist at marketing firm Morsekode in Minneapolis, chose to participate in her MBA program’s 10-day excursion to Brazil. The trip included five days each in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Students met with Brazilian companies and U.S. companies doing business in Brazil. Their focus was finding out what made the Brazilian businesses tick and, in the case of the U.S. firms, why they chose to do business there. It was an exciting time to visit: Brazil has recently turned around its currency, has discovered new offshore oil, and is about to host the Olympics and the World Cup.
“We met with companies that would have a stake in these huge events coming up,” Handahl says. “There’s just a huge buzz and excitement with the people down there. They know that they’re becoming a destination country. They’re pulling out of the third world, and they’re becoming a place to watch.”
Since graduating, Handahl has worked with a lot of international clients, but none of them have been Brazilian. Still, she says many of the lessons she learned in her course help her on a daily basis. “I would say one thing that kind of popped out to me when meeting with these companies was really the cultural differences, and how sensitive people really need to be to that when working with companies in other countries,” she says. “If you don’t understand their cultural nuances and basically how they work from a cultural perspective . . . it can really hinder any sort of business interaction with them.”
Krueger’s long-term goal is to become a consultant. She says she’d love to work internationally someday. But her trip to Russia helps her now in her job at UnitedHealth because of the soft skills it taught her and the way it reframed her expectations. “I really can apply that here,” she says. “Going into meetings as a project manager, I do a better job of checking my assumptions at the door. I think it’s important for us all to understand that even though we speak the same language, there are cultural differences across the United States. So I think whether I’m working internationally or not, I’m still applying a lot of this at home. I think I’m a more effective leader and project manager in my current role because of that experience.”
The Carlson School pairs students stateside with students in partner schools abroad for team projects. Again, the benefits often have more to do with broadening minds than they do with any country in particular. “We have a number of classes that connect students [here] with students virtually, where they work together,” D’Angelo says. “They basically are developing business plans and launching a product or a strategic plan for a product in a new market. That mirrors what happens in corporations. There will be professionals who are managing people on multiple continents and maybe they haven’t met before. I think being able to do that effectively [means] understanding the cultural perspectives, understanding something even as simple as that they may be on holiday because it’s [the] Chinese New Year.”
These partnerships also come complete with a network of colleagues and connections—ones that would be hard to find for non–internationally focused students. “They eventually meet in person in May, when all of our global executive MBA students come here and they present to our multinational faculty body after the virtual team project,” D’Angelo explains. “And then they all graduate together, so that global network is solidified. So that’s another piece for our MBA students. If they’re doing something in India, they have a network of our alumni that they can reach out to say, ‘We’ve got these ideas—is there something I’m not thinking about? Do you recommend a book I should read?’ Things like that.”
If Langworthy’s experience is any guide, studying abroad deepens those international networks further. She’s living in London now, taking a break from her studies and working for the international retail branding company Dunnhumby. Recently, she met up with this year’s cohort of St. Thomas MBA students who are doing the London course she did last year, and she shared her experiences with them.
“You bond with students in the program so much more through these courses, and even [bond with] the professors,” she says.
But does global business study actually make an MBA more valuable? Do employers care if you’ve analyzed foreign markets, developed a business plan for implementation in China, or studied abroad? Absolutely, Bringle says. “I’m in the process now of reviewing resumes,” she says. “People who have international experience or language experience, it’s very important. The understanding of cultural differences and cultural sensitivities that you get in a study-abroad program, or having language skills, is a huge benefit, and it’s also going to give you a leg up in getting hired. Even if you’re not getting into international business directly, it can help. There are a lot of IT and financial people I work with that maybe aren’t traveling, but they’re definitely being impacted by different systems around the world, currency gains and losses, those kinds of things.”
Jack Militello, professor of management and director of executive MBA programs at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says one of his students, who works for a medical device company, made connections at one of her company’s plants in China that ended up leading to a promotion back home. And he says many of his students have put together business plans for class that turn out to be very useful in the real world. “This year, I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not, but there was this guy whose company provides industrial playgrounds, for cities and big parks,” he says. “He had an idea before he took the course that they could do business in Turkey, but he hadn’t gotten any leverage with his company at all. Well, through the course, he created a business plan and a presentation for his CEO about going into Turkey. They haven’t gone there yet, but it’s a step forward.”
Another MBA student, whose family business was contemplating opening a plant or an office in Asia, came to a different conclusion. He created a business plan, decided it didn’t work, and advised his father-in-law that the company would be better off distributing its wares from its home office in the Twin Cities. But perhaps the greatest takeaway from an internationally focused MBA is the conquering of fear and unfamiliarity. Sometimes all it takes to excel is a little more bravery and knowledge than the next person has.
“I recall speaking with a student who had chosen to study for a full semester overseas and had overcome certain cultural and language barriers,” D’Angelo says. “He had the experience of being uncomfortable, but after being successfully able to maneuver through it, he was more open to taking a global assignment in a location where no one else was willing to go at his company. Because of that willingness, in this case to go to the Middle East, he realized greater leadership positions later in his career.”