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Penn State Smeal MBA Students Reflect on Global Immersion Trip to Johannesburg

As part of the Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA Program’s global immersion experience, 26 students spent one week in Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this semester to experience the business climate and culture.
April 19, 2013

As part of the Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA Program’s global immersion experience, 26 students spent one week in Johannesburg, South Africa, earlier this semester to experience the business climate and culture.

All first-year Smeal MBA students take part in a global immersion; this year, they chose among trips to Johannesburg, Shanghai, and Prague. On the trips, students visit companies and factories, meet with executives, and learn about the local economy, business practices, and government.

“The global immersion trip is a quintessential part of the Penn State Smeal MBA experience,” said Carrie Marcinkevage, managing director of the MBA Program. “We think it’s crucial for our students to get a sense of how differently businesses can be operated in other countries.”

Diane Merzbach and Michele Harrison chose Johannesburg because they wanted to go somewhere they never had the chance to go before.

Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, has a population of more than 3 million people. It is the foundation of an economy slowly emerging after decades of apartheid.

“South Africa is one of the most recent emerging markets,” said Merzbach, “and it’s becoming the economic epicenter of Africa. They produce most of the world’s gold, and mining is also a huge industry.”

As part of their immersion in South African business, students connected with professionals at companies like Accenture, Coca-Cola, MTN, Sibanye Gold, Wal-Mart/Mass-Mart, Pick N’ Pay, and UTI Pharma. Meeting with a wide variety of companies, from large multinationals to smaller non-profits, gave students insight into the intricacies of business in South Africa.

“South Africa is a fascinating example of a country rich in natural resources, whose political struggles set their economy back at least 30 years,” said Marcinkevage. “Our students saw first-hand South Africa’s potential to emerge as a major world economy.”

One of the students’ major takeaways was that doing business in South Africa is not the same as in the U.S. At one company visit, an American marketing executive described her initial difficulty with a client because she was focused too much on strategic business goals.

“Here in the U.S., business relationships are more impersonal, focused on results and numbers,” explained Merzbach. “But in South Africa, they want to know you personally. The client relationship is more friendly.”

Students also learned that the overall cultural attitudes of a population have much to do with the way companies are perceived and how products can be marketed.

“People have a tremendous sense of pride in what is happening in Johannesburg, and companies there have a serious focus on giving back to the community,” said Merzbach.

“The global immersion trip is a quintessential part of the Penn State Smeal MBA experience. We think it’s crucial for our students to get a sense of how differently businesses can be operated in other countries.”

Harrison added, “Companies are expected to do business the South African way.”

In between company tours, students were able to immerse themselves in South African culture. They visited the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pieterson museum, and an informal settlement.

Overall, students said what they found in Johannesburg was a sense of hospitality, warmth, and friendliness from everyone they met.

“It blew me away how genuinely friendly people were,” said Harrison. Merzbach added, “When you’re walking down the street, people you pass actually smile and chat with you.”

The global immersion experience was developed to give students a chance to better appreciate the differences in business environments among countries.

“Doing business in another country requires a keen ability to recognize and adapt to another culture’s values and behaviors. The MBA global immersion is one way we give our students some experience in doing just that,” explained Marcinkevage.

Merzbach and Harrison both felt the immersion experience was valuable to their perspectives of global business as well as global cultural differences.

“You have to learn about a culture on a personal level before you can do business there,” said Merzbach.

Harrison added, “A large part of it is learning how to view the world,” said Harrison. “We have to step out of our comfort zone and learn to recognize different cultures’ values, as well as understand the impact of those values on how business is conducted.”

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