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Global Learning Experience Prepares Wisconsin MBA Students for International Business

By Clare Becker

August 22, 2018

Wisconsin MBA students visited Weir Minerals among many other corporations during their global learning experience in South Africa.

They may have been nearly 9,000 miles from Madison, but the traveling Wisconsin MBA students found themselves immersed in an activity that felt right at home: swapping ideas and best practices with other business professionals at a startup accelerator in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The session was just one among many in a schedule packed full of meetings with industry, government and nonprofit officials, tours of cultural landmarks, and dedicated time for group discussion and debriefing. It was also the first visit to Africa in the Wisconsin School of Business’s nearly decade-long history of global learning experiences.

The vision of Randall Dunham, professor emeritus of management and international business as well as faculty director of the Executive Global Learning Experiences at WSB, the global learning experience (GLE) offers Wisconsin Executive MBA and Wisconsin Evening MBA students ten days of immersion in countries with emerging economies. Past GLEs have included Peru, Brazil, India, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Jean Sink
Jean Sink, director of career management and corporate partnerships for the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs.

Unlike many other schools, where global learning is treated as an add-on, WSB’s global learning component is integrated into the curriculum, says Jean Sink, director of career management and corporate partnerships for the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA programs. For those students interested in working abroad or just gaining international expertise, the GLE is often among the top reasons they select WSB. “Applicants tell us they like that it’s woven in and it will happen with Wisconsin,” Sink says. “It’s not just a trip; we want them to understand the cultural components, the different industry approaches.”

Country, culture, and business preparation

The GLE itself is the culmination of a rigorous, semester-long preparation for both the evening and executive MBA students. Taught by Dunham, students take “International Business 765: Global Issues in Management and The Global Learning Experience” prior to embarking on the GLE.

Dunham’s class takes students on a deep dive, learning about the GLE country’s history, culture, and current events through extensive research, reading, and writing assignments shared with other members of the class. Working in teams, students present on different aspects of the host country—e.g., cultural, administrative, geographic, and economic—and give briefings on organizations currently operating there.

“If a U.S. organization is thinking of doing business in South Africa, expanding its footprint, what are some of the cultural issues it should be aware of that create both opportunities and challenges?” Dunham asks. “I really emphasize that these cultural differences can be an opportunity, especially because most of the ‘doing business abroad’ cultural books tend to tell you what’s going to be bad about it. I want them to know it’s going to be challenging, but there will be tremendous opportunities, too.”

Randy Dunham
Randy Dunham, professor emeritus of management and international business.

As working professionals, Dunham encourages the students to use their own business lessons and experience to inform what they’re learning as they go through the risk analysis process, which includes  areas such as imports and exports, legal considerations, and offshore production. He also gives students a complex, interactive case study to work through that’s based on a real-world case where the company’s venture failed. Dunham tells them the company is considering Sub-Saharan Africa—and the students are now the consulting advisors.

Meeting with industry leaders

Once in-country, an integral part of the GLE is meeting with industry leaders. Firms students visited in South Africa included Weir Minerals, Ernst & Young, Procter & Gamble, supermarket chain Pick n Pay, and AFGRI, a prominent South African agricultural services firm. Along with issues unique to each business, many of the firms’ representatives talked about rebuilding after apartheid, legislation to encourage black-owned businesses, and their experiences managing a global corporation from the region.

Ernst & Young in Johannesburg
Wisconsin MBA students listen to a presentation at Ernst & Young in Johannesburg.

Dunham says he deliberately challenges students to consider their preconceived ideas about countries with emerging markets. “You might think of Africa as a place where business people aren’t as good as you are,” Dunham tells them. “Maybe they are better. Maybe those challenges help make them better and maybe achieving success is more important to them.”

Sink says it’s informative for students to see how global companies like Procter & Gamble customize their products to the needs of a different consumer base. The group learned during its site visit that nearly 30 percent of the company’s sales in South Africa are through informal markets, like small township businesses. Procter & Gamble partners with these smaller stores to meet their needs, providing, for example, smaller inventory shipments or more concentrated versions of its laundry detergent for the South African market.

Evening MBA students meet with Procter & Gamble Executives
Evening MBA students meet with Procter & Gamble executives during an industry visit.

While the industry visits are designed to expose students to different business perspectives and expertise, Dunham says he hopes they also see themselves in some of the expatriate industry executives they meet. “Our students have just spent two years acquiring business knowledge. They’ve just witnessed how to apply that global knowledge and we want them to have that confidence they can do it, too.”

‘Passion for impacting communities’

Understanding South Africa’s business market is inextricably tied to understanding the country’s turbulent history and vibrant culture. The GLE students toured the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg—something Sink says was an extremely powerful experience—and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West. The groups also visited historic Kliptown in the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg, the site of the 1955 anti-apartheid Freedom Charter declaration.

After spending time with the nonprofit Kliptown Youth Program, both the evening and executive MBA student groups were inspired and wanted to make an impact. Each group decided to sponsor several children, providing $500 per child to cover a school uniform, two meals a day, and tutoring assistance.

“It’s significant that our students wanted to support these South African children. These are the kids who could be our next global business leaders,” Sink says.

Wisconsin MBA students stand next to a Mandela statue in Pretoria
Wisconsin MBA students stand underneath a Mandela statue in Pretoria.

Dunham says a number of evening MBA students remained in South Africa after the GLE and headed to Cape Town. While there, they experienced the area’s water shortage firsthand, which they had studied in class back in the United States. Connecting with a water charity, they were able to hold a fundraiser and completely fund a clean water supply for a local community.

Executive MBA student Narendra Bhati (MBA ’18) considers the experience a “must” for global leaders. “The executive MBA global learning experience to South Africa provided insight into the country’s rich history and business culture. I was fascinated by the abundance of opportunities that exist. Our time was filled with learning, exploring South African history, and giving back to the community. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

It’s all part of WSB’s GLE philosophy of giving students an inclusive, global perspective that stays with them long after the journey is over.

“What do we want our students to come out of this experience with?” Dunham asks. “Passion. Passion for global business, passion for their careers, passion for impacting communities—the whole range. We want them to discover things about themselves that maybe they haven’t discovered, and to realize how much they have to offer beyond what they’re offering their organizations and their communities right now.”