For many MBA programs now, global experience comes standard

In a rapidly globalizing economy, MBA students arriving on campus had better keep their bags packed

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John Ma with Shanghai skyline visible behind

John Ma scored a job in China before he’d even completed his degree at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. (Portrait by Kevin Lee)

John Ma was supposed to come home last year after his two-week trip to Shanghai—a mandatory component of the MBA program he was pursuing at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. But, during his short stay in China, he managed to bag an internship at one of the companies he toured: international manufacturing company Henkel. So he changed the date on his return ticket home.

He didn’t give up on his studies. Through a partnership Sauder has arranged with Fudan University in Shanghai, Ma managed to keep up with the demands of his program. He expected to return to Canada after the internship but, as the Mandarin-speaking 32-year-old spent more time overseas, he saw that the rapid-fire growth of the Chinese economy presented an opportunity to fast-track his career. When a permanent job as business development manager for custom research at the Economist Intelligence Unit came up, he took it. Now he believes he’s already on a path toward career success—having managed to complete the degree itself in May of this year.

“There’s a high job-hopping rate in China, where people switch jobs every three years,” says Ma, on the phone from Shanghai. “People in Canada tend to stay in the same position for a long time before they get promoted. But things change really fast here and I’m pretty confident I can achieve a senior level in a shorter period of time.”

The Canadian’s experience in Shanghai has taught him a lot, including how to adapt to a handful of Chinese cultural cues—like how C-level executives prefer to meet in hotel lobbies with plush seats, instead of a stuffy meeting room. Or how they’ll spend upwards of two and a half hours to get to know you but never bring up a single business matter. Or how they’ll ask about your marital status. For Ma, this was the most awkward aspect of doing business in China. “What the heads of Chinese companies want is to have a relationship with you,” he says. “The questions they ask about your family will pinch on your privacy, which can make me uncomfortable, but they just want to build trust.”

International expertise like Ma’s used to be an interesting side note on a job candidate’s C.V. Now it’s becoming essential for anyone aiming to do business in an increasingly globalized world. “A lot of companies are going global now and they want a person who not only has good business sense, but who is culturally aware, has the language skills, and is able to quickly adapt to whatever is thrown at them and handle it gracefully,” says Fiona Walsh, assistant dean and director of Sauder’s Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre. As a result, more and more programs are adding international components to their curriculum and developing partnerships and exchange programs that make it easier for MBA students to gain valuable foreign experience while studying.

Schools that have recently added international travel to their curriculums include Saint Mary’s Sobey School of Business, which is planning a trip overseas for students in 2017; Rotman, which sent a cohort of students abroad this year as part of its global consulting program; and the University of Manitoba’s Asper School, which has revamped its curriculum so that students can now do a semester in another country. Meanwhile, other schools, like Simon Fraser’s Beedie School of Business, are changing the status of their previously existing international study components from optional to mandatory.

Sauder’s 12-week global immersion program, which culminates in a two-week trip overseas like the one Ma made to Shanghai, is required for graduation. (Students in this year’s class will head to India, Chile, Japan and England.) Sauder, which is currently the highest ranked school in North America for the international mobility of its graduates, according to the Financial Times, emphasizes the importance of global experience through its course content, as well as the support services it provides to students and graduates seeking work outside of Canada. Walsh helped Ma get his current gig at the Economist Intelligence Unit. She’s also found jobs for grads at Adidas in Germany, Heineken in the Netherlands, and Tesla in Silicon Valley. Foreign work opportunities are growing for MBA graduates, she says, citing pharmaceuticals, biotech, technology and consumer packaged goods as examples of sectors that are ramping up their searches for candidates with a well-stamped passport.

Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting at Western University’s Ivey Business School, says the notion that students need to “get out there, see the world” has become a defining trend among MBA schools. “It’s really a social exercise. When you’re on the ground working with people, dealing with ambiguities in a new environment, you’re gaining a real depth of understanding. That’s what makes a remarkable MBA.”

While many schools organize formal group trips for students, most also partner with leading MBA programs around the world to provide individual international exchange opportunities. For a semester or two, students can absorb life of a different kind, at no additional tuition cost. Corporate site visits, CEO shadowings, consulting projects and case methods are other ways students gain fresh insights abroad.

Not everyone is convinced of the value of such brief forays into a foreign culture. Amir Muradali, founder of the Association of MBAs in Canada, argues that many international experiences are too short or too superficial in nature to leave students with a strong sense of how business actually runs in other countries.

“I don’t see it as something that would further their careers,” he says. “Of course, they’re valuable experiences to help students solidify the foundations and frameworks that they learned in school. But a one- or two-week trip is just not long enough to give one person an edge over the other.”

What may matter most is how students leverage that time. For some, like Ma, a short stint can lead to more extended, career-making opportunities. For others, it can help forge connections that could prove useful later or bring fresh perspectives and insights to a Canadian business.

Kelly Glass has pored over enough resumes to know that a trip to Belfast or Buenos Aires no longer has the same “wow” effect that it used to. The vice-president of global recruitment at the Royal Bank of Canada hires 35 to 40 MBA graduates annually, and the majority of them have a checklist of countries they’ve visited. But, she says, the big difference is if a student can demonstrate that they’ve grasped the geopolitical environment of a particular country, or successfully navigated the cultural differences. “We’ve hired MBA students who brought such a creative thought process to the table because they understood the business norms of the geographies they’ve been in,” says Glass. “As a global company, we want people who know how to appeal to everyone.”

The superior cheese and pastries were a given, but Natujwa Maliondo was surprised to discover that the learning management systems she encountered in Paris were also far better than the ones she’d seen in Canada. Maliondo planned a trip to the French city while pursuing her MBA at the University of New Brunswick so she could research a business idea she was trying to launch called Virtual Whiteboard, an app that helps school teachers administer and track educational resources. Travel is a requirement of the entrepreneurship-focused program Maliondo was pursuing—students leave Canada to refine business plans, pitch to investors and gather information on market opportunities. Maliondo wanted to identify similar systems to set a benchmark against, but New Brunswick had none to compare to. Europe, on the other hand, had plenty. So she went to Paris to meet reps from education powerhouses like Pearson and was floored by how advanced they were. She was particularly impressed with the success of their interactive videos and games—a huge selling feature for K–12 schools, she realized, that was missing from her own product.

“I didn’t even think these kinds of systems existed,” she says. “Europe just had way more examples to learn from.”

Since returning to Canada, Maliondo has incorporated into her product the sort of interactive features she discovered in France. Virtual Whiteboard is still under development, but she hopes to one day launch it in New Brunswick and, eventually, other provinces. Without her trip abroad, her product wouldn’t be the same—and neither would Maliondo. “Had I stayed here throughout my MBA, I wouldn’t have known about the multidimensional ways of doing business,” she says.

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