Just hours before their climb, the ESSEC Business School students had touched down in the emerging country. They had just jetted back from Singapore, a trip that is part of the Global MBA program, where they spent five weeks absorbing the Asian business culture.
They came back to Cergy, the school’s base, for just a week before being told they were off to Africa. Would they please pack their bags?
“It was a bit intense; a back to back schedule with a longer flight,” says Mayumi Aoyama-Hubis, a Global MBA student. When they arrived, they had but half a day’s free time. “Even though we were tired we decide to go to the top of the mountain,” says Mayumi, a Japanese student who worked as a freelance translator and consultant before beginning the program.
From the following day, Mayumi and her cohort had two lectures every morning. They learnt about the South African political landscape and how businesses operate in the emerging economy.
The afternoons were filled with company visits. The ESSEC students had talks from global brands including Engen Oil and Addidas. They also visited a bevy of small start-ups – a couple in some of South Africa's poorest townships.
Their arrival in Cape Town is part of a wider effort to internationalize the school's MBAs. By sending students packing across the world, ESSEC is able to offer them a global perspective that some other schools cannot.
Dozens of hopefuls sign-up to their Global MBA program with international ambitions. It was what drew Richard Huynh. “We didn’t know we’d be in South Africa, but we knew that there was one or two months we’d spend in Singapore. That’s why I chose this MBA,” says Richard, who joined the school after working for PSA Peugeot Citroën in Shanghai for three years.
Yet it is highly selective. The program offers much more than a typical MBA; experiential learning puts business talent into a real-world context. In 12 months, MBAs are fast-tracked into business careers.
For the students, that means plenty of time adapting to airplane food. They are whisked away for a six-week term at ESSEC’s Singapore campus, before a week-long trip to an emerging market (this year, it was South Africa). Then there is the international emersion project, a team consulting project centred on a 4 or 5 week stint in another emerging market.
Global MBA students also get the chance to take an exchange program with the Mannheim Business School in Germany, among others.
These trips shine the spotlight on markets outside of the Western world – which have become increasingly popular destinations for MBAs in recent years. Common thinking is that you need to study at a school based in Asia. But this way, MBAs get the best of both worlds.
The popularity of the course is understandable. A global focus has never been more important for today's MBAs.
South Africa is just the latest destination to get the ESSEC treatment. In 2012, students spent time in Russia. The consulting project has seen worked carried out on Uruguay, Egypt, the Philippines and India.
“I chose the Global MBA for the diverse class,” says Mayumi, who joined ESSEC in September last year. Before that, she spent three years in the US, where her husband is based. That follows a lengthy career in hotel management in Tokyo. But after a few years of marriage in the States, the work dried up.
“I couldn’t find a hotel job and I was looking for something I could do,” she says. A stint as a freelance consultant in the US proved unfulfilling. So, Mayumi began looking at business schools. She settled on ESSEC – but it is “crazy” in Japanese culture to leave your husband for a long period of time.
“Everybody asks me: what are you doing? But I like the challenge,” she laughs.
Richard came from similarly far afield, but feels the trip has widened his perspective. “It’s more about opening my mind. I believe MBA students need to have an overview of all the world's economies,” says Richard, who is French but worked in the automotive sector across China for several years. “In Europe, you do not have the same problems as you do in Asia.”
You will not find any Starbucks or Costa coffee houses in the township of Khayelitsha. It was a hot day but ESSEC's Global MBAs gathered outside of a coffee shack. Some still wore their French-made suits.
Lounging outside of the red-painted café, the flock of business students queued for Department of Coffee beverages. The shop was too small for them all to fit inside.
It was a low income area. Some students described it as a slum. Yet it is one of the many South African townships that dot the landscape, and is where, surprisingly, entrepreneurs are drumming up business.
It is surely an immense challenge. Yet the owner of the Department of Coffee, in his mid-20’s, was undeterred.
“He explained what he did and how still he’s still struggling. But he has a strong passion and he never gave up,” says Mayumi. “It’s amazing that a small business is here. In the middle of the slum, they are running a great business.”
It was a world away from the big corporations and tourist attractions they visited. Yet it was one of the biggest takeaways Mayumi took back to France. “As someone from the service industry, his pride and passion was unbelievable for me,” she says.
The MBAs do not rule out a return to emerging markets after graduation. Richard is banking on a career in supply chain management, probably in France for a few years “but afterwards I will go abroad – maybe to Asia”.
Mayumi plans a return to hotel management. The benefit of all these trips to emerging economies, she says, is understanding how business people make companies work in the toughest of conditions. It must make a French start-up look easy.
“We know that poverty exists, but it’s different when we step in those worlds,” she says.
Before leaving, they visited a pre-school in the township of Grabouw. They were offered the chance to sponsor a student from a poor community. “The teachers asked us to pick someone, but it was hard,” says Mayumi.
“So many kids are out on the streets. We left some money to help. But I couldn’t sponsor everybody.”