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Jenkins MBA Students Think and Do in Brazil and South Africa

Written by Samantha Beavers

This summer, more than 30 graduate students from Poole College of Management gained exposure to emerging markets through participation in the college’s global programs in Brazil and South Africa.

The programs Business Sustainability in Emerging Markets in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and Leading People (Residency #2) and Leading Teams in Stellenbosch provided the opportunity for students to study two key topics in business – sustainability and leadership – through cultural immersion and on-site corporate visits.

Exploring sustainability

In Brazil, eight Poole graduate students explored sustainability challenges shared by businesses around the world.

“Brazil provides a unique vantage point from which to explore these challenges. It’s the largest country in Latin America and the fifth-largest in the world – and with more than 208 million people, it’s also the fifth most populous,” explains Jessica Yinka Thomas, director of the Business Sustainability Collaborative and faculty lead for the program.

“Because of over a century of mass immigration, it is recognized as one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations in the world. It also has diverse environmental resources, from biospheres like the Amazon to substantial offshore oil reserves. That gives it a complex historical, cultural, political and business context and makes it a rich case study for our course.”

Visiting various companies, including YuoolNudeNativa and Natura, students had the opportunity to learn how Brazilian organizations are tackling global sustainability problems with innovative solutions.

“Seeing the different ways these companies practice the sustainability principles of people, profit and planet – and hearing about their passion for being a force for good – was definitely one of the highlights,” says Rachel Thiel, a Jenkins MBA student who participated in the program.

Recognizing the challenges these businesses face within emerging markets, Thiel explains, makes their accomplishments all the more impressive – which is why she believes studying abroad in locations like Brazil is so valuable.

“Emerging markets don’t have robust systems or infrastructure in place, so when businesses are successful there and make a difference in areas like sustainability, we ought to pay attention. It means they’re extraordinarily innovative and agile,” she says.

“Their context also pushes them to think differently. They’re innovating in ways businesses in more developed markets haven’t thought of – and they’re more willing to embrace change. For business leaders of the future like myself who want to challenge the status quo and navigate a rapidly-changing world, there’s so much to learn from them,” she continues.

Thiel also encourages students to explore additional resources and opportunities to learn about sustainability, such as getting involved in local initiatives or inquiring about the Jenkins MBA program’s upcoming certificate program in sustainability.

Strengthening leadership

For the South Africa program, 24 Poole graduate students earned three credit hours with two leadership courses: Leading People (MBA 532) with Leigh Shamblin and Brad Kirkman, and Leading Teams (MBA 535) with Kirkman.

Exploring topics such as leading resilient teams, motivating others, transformational leadership and the role of business in society, students studied best practices in enhancing employee and team performance. They also considered how they might lead individuals outside of their birth countries or teams composed of people dispersed across the globe.

“When teaching these courses in the United States, we have to imagine these scenarios – but in South Africa, we get to draw on people’s actual experiences as they interface with a culture very different from their own. Being immersed in a different culture as we discuss global leadership brings the course material to life,” Kirkman explains.

Students also had the opportunity to hear from South African business executives about the country’s contributions to the larger global economy and to discuss the harsh reality of poverty that persists in townships throughout South Africa.

“One of my most impactful experiences on the trip was our walking tour of KwaLanga, an underserved community in Cape Town and one of the many remnants of apartheid,” says Rhonda Rogers, an MBA student who participated in the program. “Though it was difficult to see humans living under these conditions, it was inspiring to see the entrepreneurial spirit of the community and its capacity to hope.”

“Being immersed in a different culture as we discuss global leadership brings the course material to life.”

The experience prompted several discussions among students and faculty about the responsibilities they have as business leaders to ensure the welfare of communities around the world.

“It was an opportunity to consider the global impact of big corporations through another country’s lens, my personal impact as a developing leader and the ways in which we as Americans show up in other countries,” Rogers says. “As an African American, seeing and hearing first-hand accounts of the impact of apartheid was invaluable and very humbling.”

Sharing experiences

In addition to their coursework, corporate visits and time in local communities, student participants also engaged in several other cultural experiences.

In Brazil, students had the opportunity to go samba dancing, relax on the beach in Copacabana, attend a local soccer match, watch the sunset on Sugarloaf Mountain and visit one of the seven wonders of the world – Christ the Redeemer statue at Rio de Janeiro. The South Africa group took in the region’s breathtaking waterfalls, went on a safari at Aquila Private Game Reserve, learned to prepare traditional South African dishes and enjoyed a family-style meal with their creations. Some extended the trip a few days to visit Penguin Island, hike Table Mountain and visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner.

“As a professional and distance learning student, I often only interact with my classmates virtually, so I am very happy that I decided to do this study abroad class. This shared experience in a foreign country allowed us to get to know each other a little better and forged some lasting relationships.”

Learning and gaining new experiences was amazing, students say – but they agree that one of the best parts was sharing them together.

“As a professional and distance learning student, I often only interact with my classmates virtually, so I am very happy that I decided to do this study abroad class. This shared experience in a foreign country allowed us to get to know each other a little better and forged some lasting relationships,” Rogers says.

“The opportunity to travel and network with other students was amazing. We were all from different backgrounds – culturally and professionally – which was really special,” Thiel adds. “There was diversity in all of its glory, and we learned to rely on each other. We’ve also continued to talk after the trip because none of us want to let this experience go or let the energy die. We want to keep it going.”

Growing together

According to Kirkman, the novelty of these locations tends to impact students in a unique way.

“These locations open students’ eyes to a brand new cultural experience – and that pushes them to think differently about the Think and Do approach we use at NC State. It stretches their thinking and gets them out of their comfort zone, which is where real, deep learning can occur.”

Carlos Vaca, an MBA student who traveled to Brazil, can attest to that. For him, experiencing Brazilian culture and seeing the pervasiveness of poverty was eye-opening – and served as a powerful reminder that sustainable business, at the end of the day, is about people and communities.

“My time in Brazil impacted me more deeply than I thought it would. Brazil is a country that is plagued by poverty but rich in spirit and culture – and that got me thinking about some really profound things,” he says. “Since the trip, I’ve reflected a lot on the complacency of America about the human condition around the world – and I realize that I’m guilty, too. This trip showed me how much more personal growth and learning I need to do.”

To learn more about Jenkins Graduate Global Programs, click here.

Article originally posted on NC State Jenkins MBA News here.