From the category archives:

Study Abroad

It was exactly a year ago that I went to Audencia Nantes School of Management, France for a week-long study abroad program offered by GWSB MBA. It was a very eventful week for me, and probably one of the brightest highlights of my whole MBA experience. The course that I took there was on Corporate Social Responsibility -CSR, in France, and more generally in Europe. The classes were taught by Audencia professors and we also had a few visits to local businesses where we learned about their specific implementation of CSR.

While the class lectures were on a more general CSR policies and practices, there was one recurring theme in all presentations at the local businesses that was extremely peculiar to me. Whenever the management were talking about CSR at their company, invariably they were talking a lot about  management-employees relationship and what the management had done in order to keep their workforce happy and content. It was obvious that this one aspect of the CSR is the most important focal point of companies’ CSR efforts. Also, at every business that we visited they were talking how effective their CSR was, and as a proof at every single business they mentioned how long their company had been going without the workers going on strike. Coming from the US job market and hearing about the strikes and the pride the companies take in being able to avert those was quite unusual.

This was a stark contrast to the CSR emphasis in the US-based businesses, where the focus is more often on the community impact at large, not just the labor, including environmental issues, sustainability, and charity.

Analyzing this narrowly-focused CSR efforts at French companies, one could not help but think about the cost to the businesses and its ultimate effect on the international competitiveness. However, given the subject of the course I took in Audencia, this issue never received appropriate coverage in our classes. There were, of course, some cursory references to the cost of up-keeping the CSR programs, but not in the context of international competition.

A few weeks ago, I read this article Are the French Really that Lazy? It was touching on all these specific aspects of high labor costs and how difficult it is to conduct business in France, especially for someone with a US brand of business management experience. Even though the title of the article is quite provocative, it touches upon some very real hurdles for Multinational Corporations who want to run business in France. The article immediately brought to my memory the last year’s CSR course in Audencia. It was like finally getting a chance to see another side of the coin.

Personally, the most striking part for me in the article was about the power of the trade unions who can dictate their will and manipulate businesses. From the classes I knew that most of that CSR in French companies is regulated by the government requirements, and influenced by the unions, but the article is specifically focusing on the role of the unions.

Now I think that all those presentations and references to the success of the CSR programs that we heard at the company visits in Nantes were dictated not as much by the pride of the management in being proactive in their CSR efforts, but by a pure fear of the unions. Not a good recipe for genuine CSR programs.

Just to give you another point of view on the issue of French “laziness” here is an article from over two years ago that gives a kind of rebuttal to the above referenced article – Are the French a bunch of lazy slackers? Obviously, this article comes from the French source.

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Written by Kristin Schulz, class 2014 part-time MBA student at GWSB; Residential Programs Manager at Clean Currents. Passionate advocate and evangelist for renewable energy and business sustainability.

One of the great things about the part-time MBA program at GW is the flexible course offerings that make it possible to sit classes into an already packed full-time work schedule. Luckily, study abroad courses were not left out of the equation either.

GWSB offers 10-day programs that allow professionals to get the hands-on experience and international exposure of studying abroad. I have just completed my last assignment for the program I participated in this January – International Entrepreneurship and Business Growth Strategies in Developing Countries. I spent a grand total of 14 days in Ghana, West Africa combining some travel of my own with the structured course in Accra, the country’s capital city.

The program helped me gain incredible insight into what it takes to establish and run a business in an emerging market. I am especially glad that I chose to participate earlier on in my MBA schedule. This experience has inspired and motivated me to work hard to gain all the valuable business skills I will need in order to pursue a future career in emerging markets. My area of interest is the private renewable energy sector so I know that nothing would have replaced the learning opportunity of seeing Ghana’s energy infrastructure first hand.

Ghana is one of the most developed and stable countries in Africa where the majority of the population enjoys access to all the modern conveniences one would expect, including electricity. Although Ghana has abundant power sources (their hydroelectric facility generates the majority of the electricity supplied not only in Ghana, but throughout West Africa) the national electricity grid continues to experience inefficiencies. I learned that this has both positive and negative implications for their residential solar industry.

  1. On the down side: There is no motivation to be energy efficient due to the lack of any meter-reading system. A flat monthly energy charge is determined for each building when it’s first inspected. This amount will not change from month to month despite acquisition of new appliances over time unless the utility is notified. Since there is no enforcement of penalties for not advising the utility, it’s no surprise that no one reports installing more lights, charging new cell phones, purchasing a refrigerator etc. The power outages make sense since the country is demanding more power than the utility even realizes!
  2. On the up side: Frequent outages have motivated residents to explore off-grid solar options for their homes. Currently there are over a dozen successful Ghanaian solar companies dedicated to residential solar installation. The initial upfront cost, while reasonable by US standards, is still a major barrier because the average rate for a one-year loan in Ghana comes with 48% interest! But that’s a whole other story…
Solar Energy in Ghana

Given the country’s annual sun exposure, large-scale solar was a logical consideration in the initial plans to expand the country’s energy generation. But when oil was discovered off the coast in 2007 a national solar project took the back-seat in lieu of establishing off-shore oil refineries. Solar is still in Ghana’s future and it looks like that may be sooner than later due to a partnership with Blue Energy of the UK to build The Nzema Project (http://www.treehugger.com/renewable-energy/solar-farm-ghana-be-africas-biggest.html) which could generate enough power for 100,000 homes annually!

Ghana is not only ideally situated for solar, but also for offshore wind. It is exciting to see a developing country like Ghana willing to explore their diverse energy resources and open to embracing new clean energy technology. It will be interesting to see what resources are prioritized in the expansion of their energy portfolio.

Aside from the knowledge I gained during this short program, I was also able to take some time to experience the friendly people, vibrant culture, spicy food, and gorgeous geography of the country. Some of my unique adventures included learning the bobobo dance, trying fufu and goat stew, getting around via tro-tro, attempting to balance a water bowl on my head and mastering the handshake snap.

I simply can’t say enough about how much this experience meant to me both professionally and personally. I strongly encourage everyone to participate in a short-term study abroad experience while pursuing a MBA!

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About a month ago I received an email from a friend I met at Audencia School of Management on my study abroad trip to France. She asked me if I had any contacts of venture capitalists who she could approach for funding the business she was helping her friends to start in Algeria. I had to admit that I had neither contacts nor much knowledge about venture capital. Even though there was some sort of an elective offered at GWSB that tackled on the new ventures and their funding, I did not take that course. One thing I picked up from talking to some students and reading business publications was that generally venture capital is extremely difficult to secure and you should have a really brilliant idea to sell in order to get a shot at venture capitalists.

So I promised her to contact some of my classmates from MBA programs at GWSB who I thought could have at least some exposure to or experience with the venture capital due to their jobs or because I knew they were trying to start their own businesses. I received back three responses from about ten emails I sent out. It was interesting to read those emails.

One was very short: “I’m afraid I’m not the right person to ask. I can’t even get VC funding in DC”. Another guy said that he was actually working at VC firm and they were raising capital for several projects in the Middle East. He requested additional information and gave links to his company’s website.

And one of the classmates, Ben Lee, a principal at BRL Consulting Group and a blogger at Sustainable Employees, gave a bit more extended general advice which I am going to include here with his permission. I actually featured a post from Ben recently in my blog too. Even though his suggestions are somewhat general, I found them quite interesting and helpful as the very first introduction to venture capital. So here is Ben’s advice:

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Regarding VC contact info, that is a great question.  Here would be my plan of action.

 1.  Write a fantastic feasibility/business plan.  Play extra close attention to the section on who is managing the business and their credentials.
2.  I would try to make your project/business work without needing a VC.  VCs fund an incredibly small number of projects that are presented to them and fund less then 1% of new businesses started each year.  If they have already exhausted the three Fs (family, friends, and fools), they might have better luck talking with a bank if they are from the US or live here now.  Banks in Europe sometimes can be a little tight with their money regarding entrepreneurs.  If they haven’t already, they should start building a strong relationship with their banker.
 3.  Check out www.kickstarter.com.  Pretty cool place to get funding for certain types of projects.
4.  Enter business case competitions and volunteer at business case competitions,  for two reasons.  Number one, if you enter the competition, you could win some money and/or resources for the business.  The second reason is to network with some VCs.
5.  Its all about networking.  Which it seems they are doing a good job with.  But they need to not just let people know about the project they need to let people know that they need funding, why someone should fund this project, and the viability of the project (30-45 second sales pitch).
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So I forwarded all these responses to my friend in Nantes and hopefully the readers of this blog find them useful as well.

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I have planned at least three more posts with reflections on my Study Abroad in Nantes, France trip. Among those posts I hope I will have one on the formal part of the  Corporate Social Responsibility course, as there were quite a few eye-openers during the classes and company visits. But for me personally the more important discoveries and epiphanies were outside the classroom, especially through the fellowship and conversations with the students from Audencia Nantes School of Management.

I may or may not come around to writing those posts, depending on the time constraints and waning enthusiasm. But I am going to share the most important lesson I took home from France: the value of the communal life.

I really appreciated witnessing how easily and how often people get together to share the meal and a drink (OK, more than one of those) with their friends, colleagues, classmates. I understand that I need to make adjustment for age, life cycle stage, and other incidentals. But the fact remains true – in France, most of Europe, and probably most of the world outside the US, people do make time for living their lives, meeting friends, sharing the joys of fellowship over a meal and drink.

During our stay in Nantes we were exposed to two groups of students: the equivalent of our undergrads (18-23 y.o.) and International MBAs (mean age probably slightly above 30).  The undergrad students meet in big groups, around ten or more people, at least 3-4 times a week. The MBAs have more intense schedule, as they have to cram the equivalent of two-year US MBA curriculum in just 12 straight months. Nevertheless the class of 25, mostly international students, make time to go out to a different restaurant at least once a week with at least 70% participation.

When I learned this, I compared it with the realities of my life back home in the USA. Admittedly, I am not a very collectivist animal in general, but neither are most of the people I know of in my neighborhood, at work, or Business School. I also realize that my individualistic nature was exacerbated in the last three years by double pressure of full-time job and part-time MBA studies.  Still, overall we are too busy in this country with our jobs, commute, family obligations, and other stuff, mostly really insignificant, so we don’t have time to regularly meet with our friends.

For example, with one of my friends I planned to have their family over at my place for dinner twice in the last year. Both times it took about two months in advance scheduling, and it was cancelled at the last moment due to unforeseen circumstances on their side – who can possibly foresee  those so long in advance?! I also planned to meet for a drink with a few of my MBA classmates since the beginning of the Fall Term. Our schedules so far have prevented us from getting together. If we actually want to meet before graduation in May, we need to make a conscious, and possibly forceful effort.

In America we invented and exported around the world, along with Coca Cola and other superficial artifacts of our culture, such a phenomenon as Networking. It has to be a planned-in-advance, organized and, most likely, formal event for people to get together, meet each other, and  to talk, of all things, about business. Networking should have a niche for very specific circumstances when the people are of very diverse locations/backgrounds, so they cannot  naturally meet. But for us it became one of a few places where we actually meet our colleagues, partners, or even friends, because we don’t find the time to do it naturally in the course of life.

Even better, we have not just invented LinkedIn, which I personally consider a great networking tool to stay in touch with people from your professional realm  or learn some facts about them that don’t naturally surface in regular fellowship, as I wrote about this in my other post. But we came to believe that just having a connection there (or Facebook for that matter) is a sufficient substitute for really seeing those people once in a while.

Enough rambling. In my first class of the second module, which started this week, I met a couple of guys who I had had classes with before. We ARE meeting together for beer after class next week. We’ll invite others in class to join, though I can anticipate the response rate already ;-( . By the way, one of the guys is from Italy, the other – from India. The “real Americans” would probably be too busy or feeling awkward about such unsolicited advances for informal fellowship.

So, this was my most important and valuable “graduate level” MBA lesson from France – make space for meeting with friends, pals, buddies, classmates, colleagues, strangers. It is doable , they do it all around the world, why cannot we?

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Study Abroad in Nantes – First Day in France

March 11, 2012

Today I arrived in France and will share briefly while it’s all fresh. This is my first trip to France and, as a matter of fact, to any country in Western Europe. Long ago I had opportunities to travel quite a bit around the Eastern Europe, but that was it. So after arriving to Charles […]

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International Exchange Programs at GW MBA

March 8, 2012

About a month ago I did something what I could only dream about in my part-time MBA program at GWSB: I signed up for a short study abroad exchange program. The GWU School of Business has a rather strong push for international exchanges/residencies. The University is offering these programs all around the world, from South […]

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