New Americas MBA for Executives program spans borders and culturesby Tim Ghianni | Cover, Fall 2011, Features | One Comment | Print | Email
Mario Ramos has a hard time containing his excitement about the freshly unveiled Americas MBA for Executives program at Vanderbilt. To hear him talk, you’d think that he’s among the inaugural class of 12 Owen students who’ll be traveling to Brazil, Canada and Mexico in the coming months to learn about those economies. He’s not, though: Ramos, EMBA’10, already has earned his business degree, and if there’s any disappointment in his voice, it’s because he never had a chance to reap the Americas program’s benefits.
“I had to learn it the hard way,” says Ramos, Vice President of Engineering at Schneider Electric, one of the multinational companies that not only have a huge Nashville presence but also make Vanderbilt and Music City an ideal hub for this new style of international education.
Schneider Electric brought Ramos, a native of Mexico, to Nashville, and he has since grown with the company, tasting the increasingly global flavors of modern business firsthand. His experiences have afforded him valuable insight, which Tami Fassinger, BA’85, Associate Dean of Executive Programs and head of the Americas program at Owen, gladly welcomes. Ramos is among several alumni who have helped shape the program with their advice.
Fassinger stresses that businesses cannot rely on the same old parochial strategies in this global era, and so the Owen School has tailored the Americas program, which officially launched in early August, to offer its participants something new and different. To borrow a phrase from modern combat journalism, the program “embeds” students in international experiences while they work toward their MBAs. In addition to learning about global business management practices in the classroom, students gain real-world preparation on the ground, both in Nashville and thousands of miles beyond.
All about Relationships
Owen isn’t alone in this Americas venture. Three other business schools of similar prestige—Fundação Instituto De Administração (FIA Business School) in Sao Paulo; Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City; and Simon Fraser University’s Beedle School of Business in Vancouver, British Columbia—also are participating. The four partner schools plan to each enroll 15 students in the future, capping the total for every class at 60.
“One of the important things about this program is that by having discussions with people who do business directly in those countries, we’ll have debate and ask questions as to what is the right answer.
The conversations will be diverse.”
The Americas students spend the first year at their home schools, with some interaction with one another via the Web. Global study teams are then formed during the second year by making use of technology for conferences and virtual meetings. The second-year students also rotate together to each campus for immersion in weeklong residencies that incorporate each locale’s cultural advantages and challenges.
Fassinger says that students will work both virtually and hands-on “across borders, language, culture and time zones … on various coursework assignments and a yearlong capstone project.” The academic payoff is that each student will graduate with an Americas certificate conferred by the four participating universities as well as an MBA from his or her home school.
“More important,” she says, “they will have taken a deep dive into expert topics by Americas region and school, spanning everything from family-owned enterprises unique to Mexico to cross-cultural negotiations in Canada to sustainability models in Brazil to launching new ventures in the U.S.”
As a practical matter, managers will be sharpening international networking skills each step of the way. Learning how to apply those skills across linguistic and geographical borders is one of the most important aspects of doing business globally, says Ingrid Calvo, EMBA’09, a native of Colombia who works as International Controller for Gibson Guitar.
“In other countries it’s mostly about relationships,” as opposed to in the U.S., where “you get down to business right away,” she says. In her work, which now has her heavily focused on China, it’s critical to establish and maintain business relationships with government officials and business partners.
Calvo can testify to the effectiveness of her Vanderbilt MBA in these situations. “It has provided opportunities for me, has strengthened my core skills in managing global business, and has better prepared me for additional expatriate assignments,” she says.
She admits, though, that the international component of the Americas program would have been ideal, had it been available. “If given the choice,” she says, “I would have preferred to have been part of the Americas program.”
Ramos, who hopes to direct Schneider employees into the program in the future, knows from experience how valuable cross-cultural pollination can be. “When Tami first mentioned the possibility of opening up an Americas program, I was pretty excited,” he says. “It’s a tremendous opportunity. There are a lot of people in Latin America who could benefit from this type of program.”
And it’s equally valuable for Americans looking to the greater world market for production and distribution, Ramos adds. “It will help companies managing teams or trying to build their businesses in Latin America,” he says. “It will give them a lot of insight into the local environment—how to do business there, how to deal with the government, how to do business in a different culture.”
Schneider Electric, a global specialist in energy management, has 130,000 employees worldwide, producing a variety of systems that are designed to manage and conserve energy. The company has spread into markets like India and China, but Ramos says the Americas program’s lessons will translate anywhere. “There are various ways of going to market. Organizational behaviors are affected by different cultures with different values,” he says. “You need to understand how that works to really be able to do business in these countries.”
Looking at an Entire Hemisphere
As new as the Americas program is, international business has long been a focus for Owen. The idea for such a program was first planted soon after the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1994. “About 15 years later, we were finding that our Executive Development Institute client companies were looking at an entire hemisphere rather than individual countries for management decisions,” Fassinger says. “When we started to notice that, we thought that we needed to address it pragmatically.”
In the late ’90s, Owen experimented with a short-lived International Executive MBA program based in Miami. The IEMBA students were bright and hard-working—many of them have since gone on to prosperous careers in the Americas—but the logistics of the program itself proved too challenging. Among the roadblocks to the Miami venture were the lack of a Vanderbilt facility in the city and the added complications of monthly travel time and expenses for participants.
After talking with IEMBA alumni, Owen took steps to ensure that the Americas program is more practical than the Miami experiment. Fassinger says physically locating the new program at Vanderbilt is important because the university already has an acclaimed Center for Latin American Studies with which Owen can share human and academic resources. Also the decision to schedule weeklong residencies during the second year, as opposed to biweekly or monthly classes in each location, means less travel for those involved.
In all, the Americas program provides a more balanced approach than its IEMBA predecessor—as Fassinger says, it’s “a complete immersion experience and a complete Vanderbilt experience.”
Of course, practical concerns, such as tuition, credit and diplomas, had to be worked out prior to launch. “One of the things institutions struggle with is: How do you transfer credit? How do you figure out admission differences?” Fassinger says. “We decided only to enroll our own students and not share revenue, so we went with schools that have great admissions standards of their own. Second, we figured out a formula where we all are responsible for an equal part of the delivery of the second-year residency experience.”
Each of the partners brings something unique to the residency weeks. For example, in Vancouver, an international city with strong Asian business interests, focus will be placed on cross-border negotiation and collaboration. Meanwhile Brazil will offer lessons in sustainability and bottom-of-the-pyramid marketing. In Mexico, where most of the businesses are family-owned, attention will be paid to global competitiveness among such companies.
“When they come to Vanderbilt, they will look at American innovation,” Fassinger says. “We’ve been talking to the big companies that make Nashville great: Nissan, Bridgestone, LP, Schneider, Gibson. And we will use the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to show how to launch startups that can become the next multinational companies.”
Interaction with prospective students in the U.S. showed there was a need for the Americas program. “They wanted a deeper global experience than what we had previously offered,” she says. “We surveyed our pool of candidates, and it was clear there was a demand for it.”
Ramos says that Vanderbilt already has an international mindset, but in the past, much of the discussion was “very U.S.-centric” by nature. “One of the important things about this program is that by having discussions with people who do business directly in those countries, we’ll have debate and ask questions as to what is the right answer,” he says. “The conversations will be diverse.”
Universal Business Principles
William Thomas, BE’92, EMBA’11, Executive Director of Quality and Sales Engineering for Bridgestone Americas, just graduated from the Executive MBA program in July. Like Ramos, he is somewhat envious of the opportunities that await the students enrolled in the new Americas program.
“If this international program had been available when I was starting in ’09, I absolutely would have taken it,” he says. “Our business, the tire business, is becoming more of a global game. The managers in the 21st century need a global perspective.”
Bridgestone provides training to prepare employees for the international market, but Thomas emphasizes the value of the Americas program. “By having them physically take classes in Canada, Mexico and Brazil, it puts them in contact with other cultures and begins the process of changing the way they think about doing business in another country,” he says.
With Bridgestone, Thomas learned international business by serving as Assistant Plant Manager, Responsible for Quality Assurance, at the company’s Buenos Aires facility. “What I discovered with my experience in Argentina is that there are universal business principles that can be applied across borders,” he says. “But the cultures you operate in require you to modify your approach to make yourself more effective.”
Thomas is now investigating how this new program might benefit his staff. “I’m talking to two of my managers in Argentina who are contemplating going back to school and getting their MBAs in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I asked them to consider going to Sao Paulo and getting in this Americas program instead [through FIA, Vanderbilt’s partner in Brazil].”
Thomas also looks around the Nashville office to identify Bridgestone managers who are hoping to supplement the international preparation they already receive at the company. One such employee is enrolled in the inaugural Americas class: Bridgestone’s Phillipia Pundor, Section Manager, Global Mobility and Immigration.
“We have a number of teammates who work on foreign assignments outside their home countries,” Pundor says, pointing to the approximately 50 expatriates she assists throughout South and Central America as well as in the Netherlands, Portugal, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Thailand and Japan.
Pundor, who has a background in industrial/organizational psychology, says the Americas program offers precisely what she needs. “I’ve looked at a number of different graduate programs, and Vanderbilt was definitely the most attractive,” she says. “This will put me in a position of growth and opens a lot of avenues into roles across the organization.”
Fellow student Jon Haworth has a similarly positive outlook on the program. He, however, took a more indirect path to it. The Vice President of Product Innovation and Plant Operations at Des-Case Corp., which manufactures filtration products for industrial lubricants, was set to enter the Executive MBA program a year ago, but the birth of his son put his enrollment on hold.
It was a fortunate turn of events.
“As they rolled out the Americas program, I quickly jumped over to that, because the international component of our business has been growing so fast. There will be things I learn from Day One in this program,” he says. “It’s exactly what I need to move up in this company.”
“It’s not just a typical international program where you talk about how business is done elsewhere. In this case, you actually experience it.”
The son of Baptist missionaries, Haworth grew up in Brazil and is fluent in Portuguese. He also has worked abroad quite a bit for Des-Case, which sells products in 52 countries. His experiences overseas have impressed upon him the need for broader international skills.
“The American way doesn’t always get the job done,” he says. “On the other side of the world, they approach it from a totally different perspective.”
His understanding of this fact has made him appreciate the opportunity at hand all the more. “It’s not just a typical international program where you talk about how business is done elsewhere,” he says. “In this case, you actually experience it.”
He adds, “I haven’t heard it stated this way elsewhere, but in my opinion, while this program focuses on the Americas, the things you learn can transfer elsewhere. It’s really a global program, even though it’s not marketed that way.”
Fassinger agrees. “Jon is right that the learning can transfer,” she says. “We just made the decision to be more thorough about the nuances in the Americas, rather than spread ourselves too thin across many cultures.”
Congruent to the Culture
Michael Bowling, EMBA’97, grasps the idea of transferring knowledge as well as anyone. He talks with satisfaction about his experience as an Executive MBA student and how it helped him prepare for his current role as President of AT&T Mexico—a remarkable leap considering that he had never traveled outside the U.S. prior to his Owen experience.
Bowling went to work for AT&T 21 years ago with an electrical engineering background, but it was his desire to explore a different career path that brought him to Vanderbilt.
“I looked for a program that had the kind of impact that I thought I wanted on my career,” he says. “I wanted an executive program to learn the business half to help in my progressions.”
The lessons he learned were invaluable, he says, adding that Owen planted the seed that led him to work in Venezuela, Peru and now Mexico. “On our class trip [the required international residency], I think it was the first one for the EMBAs, we were here in Mexico City,” he says, recalling that he sat in the city center and “sketched out a plan to be an expat.”
After that trip, he became determined to take his career global.
“And here I am,” he says with a laugh.
These days, he’s loaning his expertise to Fassinger and her colleagues at ITAM in Mexico City. “I’m very positive about the program,” he says. “I think it will be great.” In particular, he believes the expanded international study component will pay off.
“It’s critical for leaders in business today to not just understand, but to be able to be effective in a global environment,” he says. “What you’re trying to do is reach your business objectives, but they should be congruent to the foreign culture you’re operating in. You aren’t going to be able to change the foreign market to fit your paradigm.
“The ones who aren’t successful are the ones who can’t drop out of their own mindset, the ones who say, ‘This is how we do it in the U.S.’ You might as well say, ‘This is the way we do it on the moon.’”
photo credit: Daniel Dubois, Anne Rayner, Joe Howell, John Russell
illustration credit: Ian McKinnell, Getty