In 15 short weeks, Berkeley MBA students Robbie Bhathal, Juan Sanchez Morales, Brandon Yahn, and Vince Yang, all MBA 12, were charged with researching three industries–rubber, rice, and shrimp–for a new venture in a region that none of them had ever visited. Then, when they arrived in that region–southern Cambodia–their real adventures began.
Before leaving, the students homed in on shrimp farming as the most lucrative business and believed their client, the D.K. Kim Foundation, should acquire or partner with an existing farm. However, when they arrived "in country," the students were surprised to find only small, rudimentary farms in muddy marshlands. The shrimp farms they had learned about on the Internet had failed.
"That threw a wrench in our initial plans," says Yahn. "We had assumed there was already some intensive farming with pond systems like in Thailand and Vietnam."
So the team shifted gears and took a more entrepreneurial approach. After investigating past failures, the students advised their client to develop a new, more technologically advanced shrimp farm with the help of outside experts. "You have to be sure to create partners on both sides of the supply chain and look outside the country at experts who have done this to see if you can bring in their expertise," explains Yahn.
The Cambodia team was just one of 26 groups in the Haas School's revamped International Business Development (IBD) class this year to realize firsthand the importance of "in country" research for international consulting: There are just some things you can only learn on the ground.
It's a lesson that IBD has been teaching Haas students for more than 20 years. Since its launch as one of the few international consulting programs at a top business school, IBD has dispatched more than 1,000 MBA students to more than 70 countries.
This year, however, IBD was completely retooled to satisfy the school's new experiential learning requirement and better develop students into leaders who can drive path-bending change.
"In the past, students met with mentors and in groups for very focused project preparation," explains Adjunct Professor Kristi Raube, IBD's new director. "Now we are bringing more academic content into the course."
For instance, Haas partnered with Deloitte to create sessions on project scoping, hypothesis-based consulting, and storytelling. Several speakers from inside and outside Berkeley-Haas also helped better prepare students for their projects, leading classes on everything from writing business plans to conducting interviews to travel safety.
Like all of the school's experiential learning courses, IBD was integrated into the new innovative leader curriculum. It closely built on the skills and knowledge that students gained in core courses such as Finance and Strategy as well as the school's new Problem Finding, Problem Solving (PFPS) course.
Problem Solving in Saudi Arabia
The students drew on Haas coursework to organize a four-day business skills workshop for local women. After interviewing nearly two dozen women, the team used brainstorming techniques, dot-voting, and two-by-two matrices from PFPS to condense their findings and identify four needs in the community that a center could address.
"Problem Finding, Problem Solving was hugely helpful. I'm not sure how we would have tackled that project otherwise," Alexander says. "We probably would have had a few unproductive arguments."
Like many IBD students, Alexander also talks enthusiastically about how IBD gave her a unique view of another culture. "Having hosts and a project really enabled our team to get a feel for a culture that we never could have gotten otherwise," says Alexander, noting Saudi Arabia does not grant individual tourist visas.
During the IBD trip, a Saudi woman was arrested for driving a car. Yet, what surprised Alexander most about the culture was the women's optimism, despite such restrictions.
"I perhaps unfairly expected these women to be pessimistic and aware that things weren't as good as they could be and accepting of that," she says. "That wasn't the case at all. They are so optimistic about the future. The school had a palpable energy. It was an exciting place to be, and it was really clear these women are motivated and making things happen."
Raising Their International IQ
Students typically enroll in IBD to expand their consulting or international experienceor both.
"I wanted to get international exposure," says Sami Abou Saab, who is originally from Lebanon and had never visited New Zealand before his IBD trip there for client Biocode. "I wanted to see what it's like to work in a country other than the States."
Biocode, which makes software for biology researchers, asked IBD for recommendations on new product development. Abou Saab brought computer engineering experience to the challenge, but the project opened a new world to him as his team investigated markets such as academia and museums.
Similarly, Lily Chou, MBA 12, had never worked internationally–or traveled to India–before she interviewed villagers and health care providers in rural areas there for IBD.
World Health Partners, a nonprofit that creates health service networks in India, asked Chou and her team to develop financial sustainability metrics and new ideas for revenue generation.
"This was my first time in the field actually interviewing," says Chou, who has previously worked on quantitative market research in emerging markets. "I realized how challenging it was, trying to gather accurate information, working through translators, and dealing with a different culture."
IBD clients have been just as satisfied as IBD students.
After hiring an IBD team in 2007, the D.K. Kim Foundation employed two IBD teams this year to work in Cambodia: one to create a plan for a vocational school and the other to develop a plan for a business to fund the school (the shrimp farming project). Dong Koo Kim, who created the foundation to support international students at U.S. schools (including Haas), has been very pleased with the students' work.
"They investigate very deeply," says Kim, a longtime Haas donor. In Cambodia, "it's very difficult to go and get the information... because the information is not organized."
Kim says he also believes students are more willing to take a broader look at issues and change a project's scope than local consultants.
IBD alumni, meanwhile, repeat the same refrain, calling the course a defining experience that they will never forget.
"That was definitely a highlight of my time at Haas," says Peter Lemieux, MBA 01, a documentary photographer, who took the Cambodia photos in CalBusiness. While at Haas, Lemieux traveled to Mexico to advise an orphanage that produces goat milk, cheese, and soaps on expansion plans.
"We basically landed and dug right into it. That's what was so much fun," says Lemieux. "It wasn't about teamwork in a classroom that was contrived. There was really something material at stake." –Ronna Kelly