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Wisconsin Executive MBA Students Gain International Experience Through Virtual Global Learning

By Clare Becker

May 4, 2021

Laptop on top of a globe

Everyone knows that it’s good to have a backup plan. So when the COVID-19 pandemic first surfaced, Randall Dunham and the global programs staff at the Wisconsin School of Business quickly got to work developing not just Plan B, but rough sketches for Plans C and D as well.

In a typical year, the Wisconsin Executive MBA program’s global learning experience (GLE) is a capstone course that offers students ten days of immersion in countries with emerging economies. Past GLEs have included Peru, Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Woven into the graduate curriculum, the GLE is more than just a trip: It’s an opportunity for second-year students to cross cultures, gain international business expertise, and integrate what they’ve experienced in the host country into their broader MBA coursework.

As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that the Spring 2021 GLE to South Africa would not be possible. Dunham and his team considered contingency plans, including the possibility of traveling to a different country, before ultimately deciding that the students would serve as professional consultants for real-world businesses based out of Santiago, Chile.

“One of the things we did in August 2020 was to start thinking about how we might develop a really rich learning experience if we were unable to travel,” says Dunham, professor emeritus of management and international business as well as faculty director of WSB’s executive global learning experiences. “One of the gratifying parts for me of this whole experience was believing that we had found something that could be really rewarding, really valuable.”

Designing the consulting project

Dunham had familiarity with Chile, having studied it and traveled there pre-pandemic. He thought Chile would make a great fit for the global learning class as a developing economy in the midst of social, economic, and political transition.

Randall Dunham
WSB’s Randall Dunham

Together with Joseph Halaas, WSB’s director of global programs and partnerships, they mapped out parameters and logistics. Halaas put Dunham in touch with a South American firm, the Austral Group, which helped identify more than 35 small business firms that Dunham personally interviewed and vetted.

Dunham and Halaas knew the format of the class would be virtual, but they needed to strike a balance that was interactive but avoided exhausting the 41 students with hour after hour of Zoom sessions. It also seemed risky to do an intensive week all at once, like the typical trip would have been. Executive MBA students are full-time students as well as full-time professionals—many with children at home during the pandemic—so, Halaas says, “we didn’t want to overburden them.”

What they ultimately landed on “felt more integrated, like the classroom experience, “ Halaas says. The centerpiece of the six-week period was a consulting project, with the class divided into seven groups that were each assigned a Santiago-based business. Teams had the opportunity to meet with their respective businesses throughout the course, with students performing risk analyses and preparing business plans behind the scenes to later present to the client. Prior to the kickoff, students had considerable required reading and homework, such as a CAGE analysis on Chile, which examines a country’s cultural, administrative, geographic, and economic characteristics.

Helping Chilean businesses build strategy

Each of the seven consultancies focused on a unique product or service, with several companies asking for assistance with taking their product to the U.S. market. The seven business products and services were:

Canine IUD: Feral dogs are a problem in South America and cost-effective IUDs would help control the population.

Sustainable utensils: Biogradable wooden utensils that are sustainably sourced, portable, and can be reused.

E-voting: An online voting company that specializes in running elections for unions and companies.

Premium Chilean white wines: The female-owned winery hopes to establish the export of white wines, distinct from Chile’s trademark reds.

Alpaca clothing: Local artisans who make clothing primarily out of Alpaca wool.

Egg substitute: This company offers a vegan egg substitute.

Shipping container housing: Creating temporary housing for the homeless built from shipping containers.

In some cases, the WSB student teams recommended a company pull back and rework its strategy before moving forward. In other instances, the teams dissuaded businesses from taking the products to market in the U.S. for specific reasons, recommending other options and/or suggesting they rethink the potential already inherent in the Latin American market.

Joseph Halaas
WSB’s Joseph Halaas

Teams were required to produce a final report for clients and a presentation to their fellow students in class. Dunham says the final presentations were impressive. “If used for the purpose of applying for a consulting job with one of the big four firms, many of these presentations would absolutely get someone an interview,” he says. Feedback from clients has been very positive. Most have already started to implement teams’ recommendations. And Dunham has had one student tell him he’s considering a career move to be a consultant full time.

“For the students, I think the pivot was to treat this as the quality of learning experience that it was, instead of treating it as a disappointing second choice,” Dunham says. “When these global learning trips are done well, they really are a capstone experience. People learn a lot about themselves as well as about other parts of the world. This was a deeper, more challenging experience.” Dunham was delighted that the students transcended disappointment to produce excellent work.

Student Nate Dawson (MBA ’21) says Dunham and his team “crafted a unique global experience” for his class.

“My team jumped at the opportunity to work with Casa Marin, the first and only woman founded winery in Chile,” Dawson says. “Our goal at the onset of the consultation was to develop a professional level digital marketing plan that would enable Casa Marin to expand the distribution of their premium white wine products into the U.S. market. It was an inspiring partnership that provided a great opportunity to collaborate with a company that had a unique and compelling origin story, a fantastic product, and aspirations to grow.”

Taking stock of a difficult year

Even with the success of the GLE pivot behind them, it’s still been a tough period for all—a fact that Halaas keeps in perspective.

“It’s worth acknowledging that this year has been hard for so many people. There’s just been so much loss and not being able to travel internationally pales in comparison to some of the loss that people have experienced.”

“I’ve been really proud of the work that our team has done and the resiliency shown,” he says. “It’s been great to see how our global programs team has worked well together, worked with WSB colleagues and with campus colleagues, to try to make the most out of their situations during these challenging times.”