We have returned to the USA! Three cities, nearly 20 firms, universities, and cultural excursions … all in about 13 days.
This was an excellent student group this year. I appreciated their effort, maturity and professionalism on the trip, including their collective willingness to put self aside for the greater interests of the group. They worked hard, bucked up when the travel or illness bumps appeared, and most were proactive in their learning and the questions they asked. Overall this group was one of the best groups I have taken to China or India, particularly in practicing things like the exchange of business cards, networking, and starting to cultivate relationships with people they met whether they met the person while on the clock or off. This was great to witness, as it was one of the learning goals for the course. The members of this year’s class were also excellent ambassadors for our country, college and university. Cal Poly continues to represent.
Some students found they liked China. Others discovered they did not. Either view is just fine – it was one of the objectives of the course. Some students came to see China more as the factory of the world; others concluded it’s a market and/or both. I think most came to realize that nice roads, airports, ports and trains in the richer coastal region of China do not necessarily make or break a country — it is the people that make the place.
All seemed to walk away understanding that to begin to understand this place, this trip is the first of many they will need to make. Gotta invest, invest, invest. Nothing is easy in China.
Some of the innovators and entrepreneurs in our student group spotted tremendous business opportunities amidst the chaos and fast pace of China; while some of the traditionalists in the group seemed flustered, stressed and/or intimidated by the pace and chaos in a place like China. This trip was a good testing ground for for both subsets.
Sometimes students found that on a trip like this the plane, bus or train is on time and comfortable; other times not. Some tolerated the local food and some even liked it. Some learned taxi drivers in China can sometimes be quite good, or downright surly. Some discovered they could thrive in the difficult physical circumstances that China and international business presents; others found that mountain hard to climb. This too, was part of the trip.
Throughout this trip we saw anecdotal evidence to support Fareed Zakaria’s hypothesis and argument in his excellent book, The Post American World – that it’s not that the USA is in decline so everybody needs to sit back down and stop stressing. It’s just that other countries like China and India are on their way up and we need to learn how to deal with it and partner with them.
The health of most in the group held up, but some did become physically ill due to a cold, fever or the food. Each student who had a sickness spell hit them did a great job of pushing on to try to get the most out of the trip. This effort was much appreciated.
All seemed to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices that overseas employees and their families make when a firm sends them to make headway into a new market and the unique business opportunities that can be found for a forward leaning business thinker in a place like China (or India) in relation to the West.
Overall, with the exception of some rain here and there, we seemed to catch a a break with the weather, and the pollution was not nearly as bad as usual in Beijing during our stay there. Thank goodness for that.
The students also had the opportunity to observe several best business practices from the Chinese that they can bring back with them to the West (e.g., in China, the guest, client, etc. matter and attention to them is paramount; relationships are often everything in China; and make sure your business plan matches the government’s business plan).
They also caught a good glimpse of the type of people they need to hire who they can send and who can thrive (or not get into trouble) in the markets of China, particularly if/when they conclude getting on said plane ride is personally not for them.
Many students appeared to be humbled and impressed by China and her people and talent; others will return more skeptical. A very small minority may have adopted the common Western belief that they are smarter, better looking/prettier, more talented or superior to the average Chinese national or manager who speaks broken English or comes from a poor province or village. If so we learned that said minority may be in for quite a wake up call in the future.
All seemed to reach a deeper understanding of why China and the US need to work together to solve future geopolitical, business, societal and environmental problems. Should we elect to not partner with places like China and India and their peoples to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow, we do so at our peril.
Some students saw China as needing the USA for some time; while others concluded that China will in time throw down its crutches of needing the US, develop its own domestic market, begin to walk on its own and in time run and be true contenders on the world stage, possibly even surpassing the US in the economic and geopolitical spotlight. Others described what they found in China, a communist country, as being full of pure, raw, unfettered capitalism at its best (and sometimes its worst); while others saw more of a mixture of a system made up of government monopolies that protects certain players and industries. All seemed to develop an appreciation that whether one likes China or not, an educated MBA should better understand how China fits into the world.
In other words, everybody who made the effort had the opportunity to test their talents, beliefs, values, biases, egos, humility, teamwork skills, individuality, professionalism, stamina, appetites, and other in some way, shape or form. This trip was a microcosm of the real world that no textbook, case study or professor in a classroom can teach. These are some of the very types of issues, questions and items we had hoped students would grapple and struggle with when we started to plan this trip a year ago. I do not believe that one can teach these types of lessons sitting and staying within the confines of comfortable Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo, California or even the United States. You must get on a plane and go see these places, and do so with the intent to study business as the focus of the experience. I have also learned on trips like this that the true power of their learning experience will likely not fully hit them for another year, maybe two or three or four.
We also had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of what globalization is all about and some of the challenges that will face the business firms and governments of tomorrow. Each of us was able to confirm and test some of our preconceived notions about business, capitalism, communism, “the Party”, China, and themselves, and debunk others. These students should also now have the ability to understand and analyze, at a more sophisticated and nuanced level, the next front page article they read about China and business that appears in the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Business Week, The Economist, et al. and be able to understand why it’s a front page story and be able to separate fact from global legend and urban lore. This ability to do so will set these students apart from the average American and businessperson, and even most of our politicians, who blather on about China when they know nothing about it, they have never even been there to see the place for themselves, and/or they could not find Beijing, Shenzhen or Shanghai on the map if their lives depended on it.
Of course, how, when and whether this group of future business leaders leverage the knowledge and experience gained through this trip during the next phase of their lives is up to them. At the Orfalea College of Business, I can represent we have done our best to get them to that starting line. The rest is up to them.
A big shout out and thank you to all who helped us on this trip. THANK YOU! Our firm visits this year were top notch and engaging. We are very grateful to each of our host firms and schools for opening their doors to us.
In closing, as for me, as of this year I will have taken well over 200 MBA students to China and/or India. I am bone tired and jet lagged and being away from my wife and three children seems to gets harder. I don’t know that I have many more of these student trips left in me. I design, plan and lead each trip and this course is much more work than teaching a traditional class on campus. Yet one nice thing about these student trips is that they always make me feel a deeper love for home — meaning the USA, SLO and my house and family — each time I return. Traveling abroad as part of such an intense business study course also, as the saying goes, “helps me remember who I sometimes forget to be”. I am thankful for the reminder.
This was an excellent and talented group of 28 Orfalea College of Business MBA students. They were a lot of fun to travel with. I am confident they will make the best of the opportunities before them.