Traveling with a Global MBA – From BRICS to CIVETS


This article is sponsored by the University of Edinburgh Business School. Learn more about its MBA program.

Study abroad programs have long offered students unique opportunities for immersion in a new culture. Trading the familiar for the new, they receive an education far from the comforts of home.

Study abroad opportunities are an integral part of modern MBA programs; from confronting the challenges of emerging markets to consulting with Western multinationals. We spoke to Dr Simon Harris, chair of international strategy at the University of Edinburgh Business School,about learning on the road.

A new take on a global MBA

Originally from Cambridge, England, Dr Simon Harris began his career in in the financial services sector. Today he is the University of Edinburgh Business School’s chair of international strategy, while continuing to advise businesses on international expansion.  In 2013, after Dr Malcolm Kirkup was appointed the new program director, Harris sensed an opportunity.

Global MBA programs often emphasize the diversity of their candidates. Although the University of Edinburgh Business School can certainly do this, Harris approached Kirkup with a different flavor of global MBA program, which would see candidates sent on international treks. “It became clear we both passionately believe in the value of experiential learning,” Harris remembers. The two combined their strengths – what he describes as Kirkup’s talent for “building an innovative environment for learning” while Harris provided “the expertise of doing business in international markets”.

Today Harris oversees a number of international treks, all offering students a perspective that will help make their degree a truly global MBA. Harris notes that both emerging markets and more developed economies all pose their own unique challenges. “Advanced countries are no less challenging for UK firms to make an impression in. You only have to look to the string of British retailers and banks that have tried and failed to compete in the US.”

Emerging opportunities in emerging markets: BRICS and CIVETS

When MBA students study abroad, they often choose emerging markets. Characterized by both their rapid growth and their unfamiliarity to those from established markets, over the last decade they have attracted everyone from multinationals to entrepreneurs. Although not necessarily aligned, emerging markets are often clustered together with creative acronyms. The best known are probably the BRIC countries, an acronymthat may have first appeared in a Goldman Sachs report dating to the early 2000s. The investment giant argued that the emerging markets of Brazil, Russian, India and China  would eventually surpass most current global powerhouses. The report predicted that China and India would dominate goods and services while Brazil and Russia would supply raw materials. An S for South Africa was added in 2013, turning BRIC into BRICS.

Over a decade later, the report’s predictions about BRICS have largely come to pass. China is transitioning to a consumer-orientated economy, while India is on track to become the third-largest economy in the world, behind the US and China (which overtook Japan in 2010). “This year we’ll be taking our MBAs to Maharashtra, so they can explore how inward investment works over there,” notes Harris. “India offers really interesting and unique insights into how a relationship-focused culture underpins the way business is done.”

The University of Edinburgh Business School’sMBA cohorts will grapple with challenges faced by a diverse range of firms in the country. “Our trek will be exploring what it really feels like to be in the midst of a rapidly changing economy, how pharmaceuticals firms CIPLA and Piramal are improving health conditions and fighting disease in the face of extreme poverty, how Godrej Agrovet, an agribusiness company, helps farmers improve productivity and profitability. And we’re tying that with very local developments in the finance industry; and learning how microfinance schemes are supporting growth in the rural economy.”

Despite numerous encouraging developments, outside investors focusing on India’s growing consumer class and abundance of inexpensive labor are encountering unique obstacles. Foreign retailers are required to purchase a third of goods locally. The Wall Street Journal reports that when IKEA attempted to do this, they soon discovered table tops containing dangerous levels of formaldehyde while steel dinner plates leached chemicals into food. The Swedish company worked hard to ensure children were not working for its suppliers while encouraging Indian women to join their labor force. Meanwhile, corporations like Walmart and Carrefour have dropped plans to open supermarkets in the country due partly to issues with red tape; this despite officials claiming, “We have liberalized India as much as possible.”

New groupings of emerging markets have also come to the fore in the BRICS era. Despite improvements in infrastructure, regulation and education in the BRICS, businesses are increasingly looking beyond this core group to a new grouping coined by HSBC: the CIVETS – Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa (sharing a country with BRICS).

Naturally where business goes, global MBA students follow. One of these countries will be familiar to many University of Edinburgh Business School MBAs who’ve joined Harris on his treks.

Colombia is seen as a nation filled with potential. Although suffering from high unemployment and inflation, the third largest economy in South America has enjoyed an annual growth rate averaging 4% since 2001. As the Motley Fool reported in a 2014 article, Colombia scores a 70.7 on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, far higher than the regional average of 59.7. It also points to a World Bank study identifying the country as the third best for doing business in Latin America, suggesting that “The Colombian market deserves a new look from investors.”

Although a recent Focus Economics report notes challenges to the nation’s growth rate – connected with slumping oil revenue – for many the C in CIVETS is the place to be.

In 2015, Edinburgh MBAs worked with Colombia’s largest soft drink’s manufacturer, Postobon. The company wanted to diversify by introducing the Heineken beer brand to the country, against competition from SABMiller, which dominates the domestic alcohol market.

“MBA candidates were able to witness first-hand how the country has emerged as a global tourism hotspot,” Harris remembers. “In Bogota they saw how much the city has evolved since the troubles of the 1990s. It’s a place where arts and culture are flourishing, but where poverty, crime and pollution still present significant challenges.”

The future of study abroad programs

“Study-abroad programs are nothing new – and they’re usually fantastic fun,” Harris notes. “But typically they offer very little in the way of building students’ capabilities and resourcefulness in a meaningful way.”

The business school’s approach to providing candidates with a taste of international business in context, Harris argues, is built around the idea of experiential learning.  Edinburgh MBAs who study abroad, he believes,are graduating with unique insights into doing business in another country.

“The real strength of how we approach international business is that we tie it into the fundamentals of MBA learning – and MBA doing. Having faced challenges in one country, we know from research that the graduates’ ability to do this in another country will be enhanced. Experiential learning builds the essential ‘how-to’ knowledge MBAs can carry with them into their careers, not just the ‘what’ knowledge which is specific to a time or place.

“General guides and handbooks are no substitute for the kind of on-the-ground learning we do by organizing treks to other cultures and economies.”

This article is sponsored by the University of Edinburgh Business School.

Written by John Bankston

Content writer John began his career as an investigative reporter and is a prolific educational writer alongside his work for us, authoring over 100 nonfiction books for children and young adults since 2000.

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