The importance of global experience in an MBA program

  • January 3, 2024
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 4 minute read

In the summer of 2022, I was traveling with a group of MBA students to Chile. It was wintertime in South America, and the Chilean winter was proving harsh.

We were on a bus one night, returning from a visit to Kingston Family Vineyards, a family-owned winery in the Casablanca Valley. It had been a long day, and it suddenly looked to get even longer when our bus blew a tire and had to pull to the side of the road.

As we got off the bus and assembled on the roadside in the wintery night, I wondered how the students would deal with this setback. I hoped it wouldn’t spoil what had been an exciting day. But while the driver changed the tire, and as I stood fretting about students catching cold, I heard a group of them burst into song. Others soon joined this group until all the students (and I) were singing along and enjoying the moment. We were soon on our way again, none the worse for the breakdown, and I realized there was actually a lot I could learn from this experience.

What winter in Chile taught me about global leadership skills

Our collective experience in Chile showed me exactly why we had designed the Olin MBA with a global business immersion element. When designing the program, we wanted to enable cohorts to bond and form relationships that would last beyond the program. We wanted our cohorts to go out into the world and create businesses together. So, we studied common features of groups that survive extreme challenges. Think Shackleton and his men in Antarctica.

What did we notice about these adventurous cohorts from history? They all hold onto their resolve and optimism in the face of challenges by doing just the things that make us human — singing, joking, making art and playing football.

As I stood next to our bus in the chill of a Chilean winter night, listening to the singing and laughter of our students, I thought, 'They are doing it. They have built a community. Together, they are ready for the challenges that lie ahead.'  

Patrick Moreton

If there’s one thing we know in these uncertain times, it’s that businesses of the future will need a global perspective. The value of international experience has always been high, but it’s even higher now with the increasingly global nature of how we work. We need to understand diverse cultures to work with others, and we need deep empathy skills learned from life experience in order to solve the new and emerging problems of the modern world.

How global business immersion powers future leaders

At Olin, the MBA and global leadership are closely connected. Everything students learn in the classroom they then put to the test in the world.

The main benefit of global MBA programs is that they empower students to test out their learning in the field in real time, with real customers, businesses and problems. At Olin, we take that one step further and travel the world with students to navigate global challenges in locations and situations they’ve never encountered before, offering them a chance to learn from non-American contexts and cultural differences.

Global business immersion fuels leaders of the future in several ways. Firstly, it creates deeper and stronger bonds between program members. Through the shared challenge of travel and their success in embracing that challenge, students form tight bonds and get to know each other in ways that are hard to replicate through traditional on-campus experiences.

The global immersion program also replicates the kind of trial by fire students will find in life. It is a 24/7 experience, and students need to rely on each other in ways they would have to in a startup team or other business environment. This is the best way of gaining those highly necessary global leadership skills and having them sink in.

What’s more, the World Trade Organization forecasts that merchandise trade volume will grow from 1.7% in 2023 to 3.2% in 2024. Considering that these numbers are facing some fairly strong headwinds — the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, U.S.-China tensions, and high interest rates worldwide — incentives continue for companies to look overseas. The future for young professionals will be as global leaders, which is why one of our main focuses is preparing our students to sail with those headwinds through the global immersion program.

This post was adapted from an article written by Patrick Moreton, professor of practice in strategy and management and the academic director of the MBA global immersion program at the Olin Business School at Washington University.

About the Author

Washington University in Saint Louis

WashU Olin Business School

Firmly established at the Gateway to the West, Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis stands as the gateway to something far grander in scale. The education we deliver prepares our students to thoughtfully make difficult decisions—the kind that can change the world.

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