MBA Student Reflects on Asia International Experience

Author: Jessica Ferrell
Posted: October 6, 2015

The phrases, “invaluable experience,” or “chance of a life time,” are often used when discussing a student’s opportunity to study abroad. I find both phrases to fall short when describing international experiences at Portland State University. At PSU MBA students have the opportunity to choose from several International Experience trips organized by the School of Business. Having never traveled in SE Asia and with an increased interest in global supply chain strategy, I elected to travel to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Shanghai, China with a group of MBA’s and Master’s of Supply Chain Management students.

Traveling to a time zone that is 11 hours ahead of you makes acclimating your body to the local pace very difficult. In order to get the most of out my time in Vietnam, the first leg of the trip, I arrived four days before the program started. This required that I make my own housing arrangements before the program started, and I choose to stay in a local rented Airbnb apartment away from the tourist area. This allowed me to meet some locals, become familiar with a simple business transaction in Vietnam and begin to pick up some of the local habits, customs and language. I drank coffee on ice with condensed milk, and ate my Banh Mi breakfast standing on the street. The exchange rate of roughly 24:1 in favor of the USD allowed me to have a comfortable standard of living, with few financial limits on my experiences.

Engaging with the local community is necessary when considering whether or not to do business in a new country. While this trip was meant to expose us to the business relations operating in Vietnam and China, understanding the people who live there and fuel the economy was a critical personal goal for me. It can be easy to look at the processes and metrics of a factory and not understand why the facility is not operating at full capacity…unless you know that it’s a local holiday and most of your workforce has left to be with family in the countryside. Considering the human element is always critical.

The business school provided us with the amazing opportunity to tour several fortune 500 companies’ facilities and ask upper management questions regarding their operations. We walked the manufacturing line at Nike, Coca-Cola and Toshiba in Vietnam, spoke with a public relations firm in highly censored China, and were introduced to the concept of an industrial park at Becamex.

Industrial parks are all inclusive workspaces for companies who are looking to manufacture in Vietnam. Becamex, which is 51% government owned has invested in schools, multiple affordable housing options for workers, a university, a hospital and purposely designed green spaces. Becamex also provides companies with services such as customs support, factory building, supplier relations and equipment procurement. However, without an American equivalent for an industrial park, the concept was difficult for me to evaluate. I understood what Becamex was doing and what they were offering, but socially, would this be a place, a manufactured community for manufacturing, where people would want to live and work? I recalled the mining towns owned by companies in the Kentucky Appalachian mountains where my family is from, and how unappealing of a place they were to live. Even with a detailed presentation by our company representative and a tour of the facilities, I needed more input, I needed a local perspective. So I sought to make some friends.

Our professor Cliff Allen introduced us to a tailor in Ho Chi Minh City. While being fitted for a suit I began to chat with the tailor’s assistant, My [pronounced Mee]. She is 25, a university graduate, and her family lives in central Vietnam, about 5 hours from her. I asked about Becamex, and she knew it immediately. I asked her if she knew anyone who worked there, and she told me she did not. But she told me the kind of people who work there do not want to worry. They do not want to worry about housing, or a job, traveling to and from work or where their children will go to school. She tells me that Vietnamese stay with their families for multiple generations and if a good job takes them away from their family unit, they are less inclined to take the position. Many quit their jobs around the holidays because not gathering with their family for feast days is not an option, and many companies experience high turnover.

Now Becamex’s business model makes sense. Becamex is offering worry-free manufacturing in Vietnam for the producers and laborers. “Do business with us and we will take care of everything. Work for us and we will take care of everything.” What felt like a strange social experiment before getting the perspective of a local, now seems like a company capitalizing on people’s desire to have things organized for them. Understanding the viability of Becamex, a globe manager who is considering placing a production facility within this industrial park should understand the local workforce. You can build it, but will they come? In a culture that values family togetherness, promoting family housing to the local labor force may allow a company to decrease turnover and invest in skilled labor, increasing it’s appeal to additional manufactures.

International Experiences are not “chances of a lifetime” they are highly curated and coordinated opportunities for students who want to pursue careers in the increasingly global economy. Other universities see the value of this kind of program, because I ran into some MBA’s from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. As the 5 of us stood in the elevator in a Shanghai hotel discussing China’s devaluing of the Yuan, I was reassured that the ROI of my International Experience was not chance but opportunity and the value would increase well into my maturity.

Trips like these are also not “invaluable experiences” meant to be gained and then only reflected upon. They are constantly pertinent experiences that gain value with their application. Business student’s love calculating the return on investments for pretty much everything, and this trip is no exception. Considering the airline expense of $1175, coupled with the out of pocket expenses for food and personal items at approximately $300, in addition to the tuition that I would have paid to attend classes on campus, and considering the percentage of executives that have worked aboard and the value that companies place on candidates who have lived, worked or studied in the emerging Asian markets, I anticipate a consistent ROI for my time, money and experience in Vietnam and China as I build my career in management as a experienced marketer.

>>Click here to learn more about the Portland State MBA International Experience.

>>Click here to ask current student ambassadors about what it’s like to be a Portland State MBA student.

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Jessica Ferrell came to the full time MBA program with 15 years experience in all things food and beverage. She has an educational focus in marketing strategy and professional interest in client management and creative design. You can connect with Jessica on LinkedIn, or find her at one of her favorite Portland eateries.