MBA students at Canadian business schools are learning firsthand that when it comes to their professional futures in an international marketplace, spending time studying business overseas does them the world of good.
Rachael Ibey, a 27-year-old MBA student at the Richard Ivey School of Business, was part of a three-city tour of India in December, which was both business and cultural. The course took 32 students to Indian companies and communities to explore the explosion of growth that is turning that country into an economic powerhouse.
While Ms. Ibey said a lot of her coursework covers international business challenges, with many of the MBA students coming from or currently working and living abroad, the hands-on experience was invaluable.
"With a global perspective in business right now it is very important to understand how different countries operate in terms of businesses and business practices, especially in developing economies," she said.
She said she found interacting in with students in Bangalore and village visit near Delhi to be especially interesting.
"Culture and politics are so intertwined with business in India. One key theme in the business organizations we visited was that in a lot of developed economies you see a lot of government taking the first role in taking social responsibility, while in India, businesses see themselves as an entity of society," Ms. Ibey said.
"They are taking on responsibilities before it is mandated by the government. Culture, politics and business are not as intertwined in Canada."
Ms. Ibey is from Parry Sound, Ont., but had had international work experience as an engineer in Hong Kong shortly before starting the MBA. She plans to work in supply-chain consulting after leaving the program, with the hope of making global business opportunities part of her career.
"The international opportunities and aspects at Ivey were very attractive. I'll be based in Toronto and, initially, a lot of the jobs I'll be working on will be North America-based, but the strategy of the company I am atm - Deloitte - is multinational.
Ms. Ibey's classmate, Fiorella Marchinares, is a 28-year-old Peruvian-Canadian who has worked in Switzerland and Lima since doing her undergraduate business degree at the University of Alberta, in the consumer packaged goods industry.
For Ms. Marchinares, the Ivey trip was an opportunity to compare the economies and business practices of Peru and India.
"I expected to see what I would see back home, but I was a bit shocked at the differences between the people with higher incomes and the level of poverty in India. It struck me, even coming from a developing country," she said.
"But I really appreciated the effort that the people took to really push themselves, to get a better career, better job. And Indian companies really encourage their people to be outside the box, be very innovative and to create solutions for consumers."
Their course professor, Murray Bryant, said the Ivey Business School had previously sent students to China, but this was the first trip to India. He assigned his students Indian novels to set an understanding and context for their trip.
"I felt that was an innovative way for them to learn context. The feeling was that India was a significant international superpower. I was handed the assignment to explore the cultural, political and business contexts that India is operating under currently, and to understand some of the best practices that are coming out of India that we can learn from," he said.
With companies that many North Americans have never heard of having sales levels similar to that of General Electric, there is a huge gap of understanding, he said.
Dr. Bryant said the experience helps students frame the themes of international business in their own futures in an unforgettable way.
"We operate in a world that's global, and, because we can see something on television and because of 24-hour news channels, we think we understand. But it's only when you see people and businesses in their own environments and understand, listen, watch, reflect, rather than evaluate, that you start to truly learn about it," he said.
"We want the students to understand and appreciate at a more substantial level."
The University of Victoria has taken a similar approach over two decades with its MBA students.
Ali Dastmalchian, dean of the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, said MBA and MGB (master's of global business) students have been sent abroad since the school's inception 20 years ago, with an emphasis on countries that do not have English as the mother tongue.
"Internationalization is a big part of our DNA as a business school, but we didn't want our students to go to Washington state and get an exchange there and consider that as major international experience," Dr. Dastmalchian said.
"All our programs, on a massive scale, expect our students to spend time away from here, picking up an international dimension of business and society."
The school has established partnerships with business schools in 75 other countries, primarily in Asia. All are "active partners," he said, hosting undergraduates for optional four-month stints, as well as graduate students on compulsory visits. This year, for example, students in the MGB program will be in two countries: Austria and Taiwan. Next year, they will visit Malaysia and France.
To make the visit a more practical learning experience, the school takes on an assignment from a Canadian company on a business strategy issue in a particular country, with 15 to 20 MBA students carrying out the assignment and presenting their findings to the board of the company on their return to Canada.
"A helicopter company in town, Vancouver Island Helicopter, wanted to develop a product line in southern Brazil, so students went to Brazil and spent a month there and finished the study, finalized the report and presented it to the company. They made a decision based on those findings," Dr. Dastmalchian said.
Special to The Globe and Mail