Executive MBA Students Explore Southeast Asia

Executive MBA Students Explore Southeast Asia

In September 2019, rising second-year students in the Oregon Executive MBA headed to Southeast Asia for an eight-day global trip. Destinations included Bangkok, Thailand; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Singapore.

Nine students chose to begin their trip in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; eleven headed to Bangkok, Thailand; and the largest group—22 all told—went to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The entire group of 42 reunited in Singapore to explore the ways the highly developed city-state contrasted with their previous destinations.

Company visits—with the opportunity to hear from and interact with executive leadership—were an essential part of the trip. Destinations included local companies as well as multinational organizations. (See below for a full list of the companies visited.)

"The global trip enabled me to gain an appreciation for the global capacities of widely different companies in health care, manufacturing, digital marketing, and other sectors." — Mark Enker, a physician at Tuality Healthcare.

At every organization visited, students' questions showed a high level of insight. This was no accident. Prior to the trip's start, Oregon Executive MBA academic director Deb Bauer organized the group into small teams and assigned each the task of researching one of the companies the students would visit. Each team shared its findings with the rest of the students, so the entire group was well-prepared for every visit. The company visits also provided opportunities for students to develop their skills in international business settings.

"Knowing that one of my objectives for the trip was to build my gravitas in international business meetings, my team agreed beforehand that I would take the lead on the conversations during the Thailand group's visit to global communications consultancy Hill + Knowlton," said Heidi DeWitt, demand generation program manager at HP.

In Singapore, a standout experience was a visit to Edwards Lifesciences, the global heart-valve manufacturer. After touring the facility and hearing from the Singapore location's Vice President and General Manager of Operations Rainer Wolf, the students had the chance to act as visiting consultants, proposing solutions to several of the company's pressing business challenges. 

"I was really impressed with the candor we received from some of the speakers during the company visits. They took time out of their day to share their insights and words of encouragement to a group of American students, which was amazing," said Anvi Bui, a customer experience manager at Cisco Systems, who was part of the Vietnam group.

“We design the global trip with two goals in mind: to give students the opportunity to delve into the business cultures of different countries and also to enhance their understanding of the ways U.S. business practices compare with other parts of the world," said Bauer.

For Jeremy Zook, a forester with Port Blakely, the trip brought a new appreciation of the ways government can support business development.

“During many of the company visits, we heard how the Malaysian and Singaporean governments support business and promote a business-friendly economic environment. For me, this was an interesting contrast with the practices in the United States, where the relationships between state, local, and federal regulations can make doing business more complex," said Zook.

Company visits weren't the only way students engaged with the countries they visited. Students on the Malaysian leg of the trip toured Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers skyscraper, explored the Batu Caves, and tried their hands at batik and creating a pewter vessel. In Thailand, students headed out to the countryside to visit an organic farm and then explored a number of crafts. The Vietnam group spent the day traveling through the Mekong Delta via speedboat, bicycle, canoe, and tuk tuk auto rickshaws, meeting a highly entrepreneurial farmer and seeing local sites.

Unscheduled time slots gave students the chance to flex their navigation skills through exploring on their own. During their time in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, the groups also participated in structured local market immersion experiences which provided insight into the ways the countries' merchants do business. 

The trip's itinerary and its academic components were designed to bring value to all the students, regardless of the extent of their previous experience in Asia or abroad. 

"Prior to our journey, some members of our cohort had vast international experience, several of us previously lived abroad, and some had never travelled outside of the United States. I am proud of our cohort for respecting each person's approach to international travel in a way that fostered positive experiences for all," said Kevin Holmquist, a vice president at Summit Bank.

For those with years of global experience, the trip offered opportunities to experiment with different roles within the group.

"Because I've traveled fairly extensively and I knew others hadn't, my goal was to allow others to learn. During our market immersion in Thailand, I attempted to take a passive role in navigation, which was surprisingly challenging," said DeWitt.

Starting the trip with smaller groups in the spoke destinations meant that a wider range of companies were available for visits. Not every organization can accommodate 42 students (plus faculty and staff), but many can easily host a dozen or more visitors. Traveling together in smaller groups also gave participants a chance to connect with others in the program they may not have known as well.

After four days in their spoke destinations, the three groups reunited in Singapore. 

"The excitement to see everyone after we were in our spoke city was overwhelming," said David Newell, an assistant director of distribution at OHSU, who was part of the Thailand group.  

On the first afternoon in Singapore, an afternoon of structured presentations from each group on their experiences gave cohort members the opportunity to learn about the destinations peers had visited.

Thanks to some serendipitous scheduling, the Lundquist College's dean Sarah Nutter and her husband David Nutter were in Singapore at the same time as the students and were able to join them for many of their activities. Students also benefitted from the presence of faculty member Mohan Nair, who grew up in Singapore and was able to provide perspective on the evolution of the city in the past few years.

As the trip drew to a close, it was clear that students would walk away with insights that could be applied to their own professional lives, the business culture of the United States, and any future international endeavors.

For Mele Sax-Barnett, a director of customer engineering at SaaS company Airship, the experience had direct bearing on her capstone project, which she's using to help her organization build out its global vision. 

"I now have a much better idea of how to be culturally sensitive for our customers while maintaining our global brand, what it would take to open and run offices in Singapore or Ho Chi Minh City, good questions to ask about doing so in other places, and a better understanding of how to supervise and motivate employees in different business cultures," said Sax-Barnett.

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