Students in the GEMBA program do much more than study abroad; they dive headfirst into the cultures of emerging markets.

International business lacks perfect structure and uniformity. If it has one predictable aspect, it is unpredictability.

So when a bus filled with students in the Georgetown-ESADE Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) program found itself lost in Brazil a couple of years ago, co-director Paul Almeida chalked it up to good practice for conducting business in a global environment.

“Globalization is inherently uncertain,” says Almeida, senior associate dean for executive education at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and associate professor of strategy and international business. “We put the students in tough environments. We could easily make it perfect, but learning to conduct business comfortably even when you’re uncomfortable is part of being successful globally.”

GEMBA marries the interdisciplinary teaching strengths of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and Walsh School of Foreign Service with the entrepreneurship and social innovation strengths of Barcelona’s ESADE Business School. This program emphasizes the geopolitical and macro environment that affects business.

The program is so distinctive that it has turned the traditional concept of the executive MBA on its head: Instead of a program built essentially on classroom education, with a quick visit to another country, GEMBA immerses students fully in dynamic and challenging environments — with logis­tical challenges, lost buses, and all.

“We’ve learned that we can be innovative and adventurous in terms of program design,” Almeida says. “At the end of the first GEMBA in 2009 I said, ‘This was a grand experiment, and it was successful.’ That experimentation is most inspiring to me — that we can advance education and learning in new and wonderful ways, if we dare.”

Finding the Rhythm of a Country

Of all the GEMBA program’s features, students most value the opportunity to use their business tools and techniques in real settings in emerging economies. Yet that also is the one feature that drew the most skepticism from traditional educators when Almeida and his co-director, Pedro Parada, associate professor in the Department of Business Policy at ESADE, were developing the program from scratch seven years ago.

The professors knew that both Georgetown and ESADE have solid undergraduate and MBA programs, but both were seeking to expand global offerings. “We decided if we were partnering on the global scale, with all its complexities, we should apply a new approach,” says Parada, associate professor at ESADE Business School and visiting professor at Georgetown. “Schools that were already offering a ‘global executive MBA’ were just reshaping their traditional MBA, taking their students to another country for a week, and calling it ‘global.’”

The result of this new thinking was not only a global program, but also a truly global experience. Broken into six 12-day modules spread out during a 13-month period, GEMBA students hopscotch the globe and return after each module to their jobs. The program moves from Washington, D.C., to Barcelona to Buenos Aires and São Paulo, to Bangalore to Madrid and Moscow, and back to New York and Washington.

GEMBA is designed for older, more experienced students from all over the world — future and even present captains of industry — who seek different learning environments than their younger peers. Admission requires eight years of work experience, but the current class has an average of 13 years’ experience, and one-third have other graduate degrees. These students seek a learning experience rather than simply another certification.

Immersing students in emerging markets allows them to discover which tools and concepts do and do not work in a particular country, while they simultaneously learn in the classroom. Alumni say they also gain a more global perspective and increase their understanding of the role of governments and multinational institutions. The idea is that if they experience globalization, and it becomes part of their decision-making­ process, they can then act on it.

Teri Gendron (GEMBA ’09), a CPA who worked in public accounting for seven years before she joined NII Holdings, Inc., the international division of Nextel Communications Inc., as vice president and controller, says GEMBA is about much more than visiting other countries. “You learn to appreciate the difference within a country,” she says. In Moscow, for instance, the cohort visited the Moscow Oil Refinery, which she says was very traditional and hierarchical, almost militarylike, in its operations. But they also visited a young entrepreneur’s toy company, which she says was relatively liberal and open-minded, more like American companies. “If we’d just seen one of them,” she says, “we would have a skewed vision of how things operate in Russia.”

GEMBA covers all the basics of an MBA program through classroom discussions and lectures, case studies, and a master’s project. In every location, there is a faculty leader, and faculty from all three schools team up with local professors to teach. Every module offers courses that cover industry structure, corporate strategy, and corporate finance. Local managers, executives, or lobbyists are invited to speak to the class, and students role-play with them, integrating all the topics covered in that specific module.

The program also immerses students in the rhythm and culture of each location. The group stays in local hotels, eats local food, and dines when the locals dine — even if, as in Spain, that means sitting down to eat at 10 p.m. In Bangalore, students take “cultural walks” and try to understand the challenges and opportunities in the market. In São Paulo, they learn the frustrations of a city so congested that, Parada says, it has denser helicopter traffic than New York City. In Moscow, they take Metro, which exposes them to some Soviet heritage. “It’s 300 feet below ground, because it was used to protect people from bombings in World War II,” Parada says. They visit a private Russian gallery and have experts explain the history of the country through its art.

Through all these academic and cultural experiences, the program builds students’ confidence, Almeida says. “We unleash the possibilities in themselves,” he says. “People realize they are capable of a lot more than they realized, and a lot of them, after the program, change jobs. An ER doctor decided to leave and start his own business. One person stayed at Microsoft, but he got two promotions in a year.”

Other students go even further in their immersion. Heather Petry (GEMBA ’10) added her own trips to every GEMBA ­module in an effort to learn more, extend her network, and do some good in the places she visited. She spent time on the water with Sailing Training for Youth: Ruhunu Sailing Association, an NGO in Sri Lanka that teaches children how to sail, so down the road they are less reliant on fuel for fishing. She also volunteered at a school and orphanage in the Philippines and climbed mountains in Patagonia.

Petry formed her own consulting group, Intersection International, four years ago, focusing on strategy, innovation, and diplomacy. She recently completed training in international conflict management and peace building. Being someone who seeks such cultural and business experiences, she says classroom-based executive programs offered by other institutions do not compete with GEMBA. “The program,” she says, “inspires you way beyond what’s in your grasp.”

Back to Work With Fresh Ideas

A common refrain among GEMBA students and alumni is the benefit of returning to their jobs after each module with new knowledge. “What they discover after these intense experiences is they go back and say, ‘OK, what does that mean to me?’” Parada says. “What we see is they apply it immediately. They return to their jobs and have fresh ideas.”

For Miguel Montes Güell (GEMBA ’09), the GEMBA experience is helping his company expand globally. Montes Güell is COO and chief information officer of Banco Sabadell Group in Barcelona. “In the program,” he says, “I learned that emerging economies are quite big and powerful, and there is more than one center of gravity in our world now.”

Montes Güell directly benefited from GEMBA when the chairman of Banco Sabadell asked him to represent the bank as a major stakeholder in an American bank in Florida. But there were many other, more subtle benefits as well. “You apply different management skills, you change your style, you change the way you are communicating,” he says. “Everything you learned, all your experience, it all has a different framework in this program. You understand better the things you already know.”

Likewise, Gendron says she implemented new skills in her job at NII Holdings, Inc., immediately. She remembers one particular class that covered structuring a global organization, something her own company has struggled with, having formed through the acquisition of a number of companies throughout Latin America and operating as a very decentralized organization. “We were asking ourselves, ‘What is the right role of the headquarters, and where should decisions be made?’ Right as we’re going through all this, I had this class. It couldn’t have been more relevant.”

For Hanna Dust (GEMBA ’11), Johnson & Johnson’s North American Pharmaceuticals MBA talent development director, lessons from a recently completed GEMBA consulting project proved valuable in her job, too. At Johnson & Johnson, she serves on a committee that focuses on the global pharmaceutical career framework. In preparation for the module in Bangalore — a vibrant IT market — she consulted for 3M India, which is growing at a rate of 40 percent per year. The challenge for 3M India, Dust says, is providing the tools to support their human capital structure and the talented leaders to meet the robust work demands.

“This is the type of true-life business scenario that is directly related to the work I’m doing,” she says. While she was having conversations with 3M India’s vice president of human resources, she was sharing feedback in similar conversations with her leadership at Johnson & Johnson. “I shared the recommendations we’re making for 3M India on how to maintain the strong culture that’s well known at the company. It’s such a fast pace in India at the moment that there’s barely time to look up from your desk.”

Dust would like to work abroad one day. This year, she says, Johnson & Johnson’s support has been imperative for her to succeed in the GEMBA program. Because students attend classes for 14 days every two months, employer support is a big part of the equation. For the class of 2011, 28 percent of employers offered a full financial scholarship for the program and 31 percent provided a partial scholarship.

A Class of Global Citizens

The uniqueness of the GEMBA experience comes from the travel and immersion, but also, considerably, from the students themselves. The 29 students in the class of 2011 come from 12 countries and speak 14 languages, including English, which is required for admission.

“We had a student from Brazil working for a Canadian company in South Africa,” Parada says. “While he was traveling from home to work, he’d pop in for GEMBA.” Parada — a Bolivian living in Spain and teaching in Washington — says most of the participants are already world travelers and global citizens. “GEMBA is just another part of that.”

Alumni of the program agree that one of the GEMBA gems is the cohort itself. The students come from financial services, government, technology, energy, health care, and nonprofit sectors and work for companies including Microsoft, Procter & ­Gamble, Boeing, Dubai International Capital, Royal Bank of Canada, and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Almeida says it is easy to recruit 30 people; the challenge is building a great mixture of nationalities, personalities, and professional backgrounds. “We teach and give feedback, but they bring the substance to the program,” he says.

Gendron says anyone working in international business would covet the network a GEMBA class creates. “If you have international issues you struggle with every day, it makes sense to depend on a class in which there is a significant representation from other countries. I’ve learned so much from my classmates.” After graduation, they all joined a Google group, within which people introduce topics for debate or seek information — from advice on changing jobs to finding business contacts in a different country.

Every fall, all GEMBA alumni are invited to one of the program’s cities for a couple of days to gather with current students and informally talk about new business ventures and trends, issues at work, and updates within the program.

Parada says it’s a privilege to work with individuals as accomplished as the GEMBA students. “They are businesspeople who are so good, they can build teams that survive without them for two weeks,” he says. “Getting this eclectic, well-trained, and intelligent class that can play off each other is invaluable. One of the things I promise people when I recruit them is that the class will be part of their globalization experience forever.” w

Washington, D.C., freelance writer Melanie D.G. Kaplan has written for The Washington Post, USA Weekend, The Christian ­Science Monitor, and Georgetown Law Magazine.

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