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Cass MBAs Just Went On An International Elective To Cuba — This Is Why

The simmering of relations between Havana and Washington has opened access to business globally

Sat Jul 16 2016

Could European business education be coming to Cuba? In the words of Sionade Robinson, associate dean at Cass Business School in London, “We were thrilled and excited by the opportunity.”

The simmering of relations between Havana and Washington has opened access to business and business schools globally. And Cass claims it’s the first in Europe to begin exploring future collaborations in research, projects and education with the Caribbean island state.

Some 22 Cass MBAs visited Cuba in June to meet businesses preparing for a new phase of economic development — and to enjoy the sun, rum and cigars. A number of schools in the US have organized similar visits.

While academics and companies from Airbnb and Stripe to Verizon, have rushed to assess market opportunities, Cuba has been criticized for its human rights record and for its Soviet-era-styled economy.

Below, Sionade answers questions about the future of education in a nation that still bears the hallmarks of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution — but one that holds huge potential for a mass economic and social shift. “Change is coming,” she says.

Can you provide an overview of the trip, including dates, number of students, and itinerary?

After extensive research, diplomatic liaison and relationship building, our Cuba: Facing the Sustainability Revolution elective took place with 22 MBA students during the second week of June 2016. The itinerary focused on taking students “behind the scenes” and into real businesses, meeting companies as they consider their options in a new phase of economic development. We met with executives, diplomats, residents, commentators and the emerging entrepreneurs.

We also met with banks, with sugar refining companies, energy companies, executives creating new economic zones, awe-inspiring pharmaceutical and bio-tech organizations, hospitality and tourism businesses, as well as global brands such as Havana Club (rum) and Cohiba (cigars).


International trips are common. What can MBA students get from Cuba that they cannot elsewhere?

A unique and once in a lifetime opportunity to look at the challenges in organizational design, leadership and management, as businesses in Cuba emerge from the long-standing embargo.

Cuba has run on a completely different set of values — the outcome is evident as our students explored Havana and an island [Cuba] which has the highest literacy rates in the region as well as a longer life expectancy for its people than it’s near neighbour the US. Health and education were goals of the Cuban Revolution — and the words of Fidel Castro and Comandante El Che are still evident on the walls of many organizations. But change is coming.

What impact have the warming relations between Cuba and America had on Cass’ interest in the country?

Cuba is seeking a diverse set of economic relationships for its future — it won’t all be about the US. A portfolio of relationships makes more sense as Cuba emerges.

And Cass’ expertise in finance, sustainability and entrepreneurship gives credence to a set of new relationships with Cuban government, businesses and academics. The Cass MBA program too creates opportunities for our MBAs, as responsible leaders of the future, to see new emerging business models up close. It makes perfect sense for the Cass MBA program to be the first European school to visit Cuba in this context.

Already, Cuba’s opening market has enticed companies such as Airbnb, Stripe and Verizon. Do you expect more to follow?

Yes — though Cuba too will want to create its own opportunities. Cass students met a large number of entrepreneurs, ambitious individuals seeking and growing ideas to drive economic development. Many young Cubans have left the island in recent years but as government policy changes, Cubans want to make things happen “at home”. They are highly educated and hardworking; it is really important not to underestimate what might happen there.


Yet Cuba has been criticized for its human rights record and a Soviet-style economy. Was this a concern for you?

It was a subject that was discussed and explored. The Cass MBA program includes an ethical focus and such matters are discussed because future business leaders have a responsibility [to do so], as influential global citizens. In a similar way to our elective looking at innovation and technology in Israel and Palestine, students frequently debrief and discuss what they are hearing, seeing and thinking as they engage with these interesting locations.

The consequences of the Soviet-style economy were very evident — and as already said, so are the stated goals of the revolution in education and health. In the latter for example, Cuba has achieved significant progress in eliminating meningitis and in curing diabetic ulcers.

What opportunities for integration with Cuba do you see for the business school?

We were thrilled and excited by the opportunity to be the first MBA program to begin to engage across a wide range of future collaborations in research, projects and business education.