Summer school, Costa Rican style

By Laura Heinauer, August 10, 2005

They trekked by bus over a rickety suspension bridge in the jungle and hiked for three hours across a beach in the middle of the night, all to behold a sight rarely witnessed: nearly 100 baby Leatherback turtles crawling off to sea.

But the St. Edward’s University business students weren’t there to coo over the wonders of nature. They were working on marketing plans, microlending strategies and corporate sponsorships as part of the university’s master’s of business administration class in global project management.

Such courses — where students assume the roles of business consultants, draft business plans and help form startups in foreign countries — are fast becoming the most popular courses offered at MBA programs in Austin and across the nation.

“It teaches you how to deal with real global clients,” said Paul Rinn, one of eight students on the trip charged with drafting a 38-page business plan for a nonprofit organization called Association ANAI, which works to combat turtle egg poaching by providing Costa Ricans with other opportunities for sustainable income.

Students studying overseas learn the obstacles to running businesses in developing countries, school officials say. They also gain a hands-on understanding of the global marketplace and the challenges unique to running a multinational corporation.

Additionally, many students feel that by going abroad and creating job opportunities, they are having a much bigger impact on the economies of countries that have been overlooked.

“All students need exposure to foreign cultures, because there’s really nothing that isn’t global anymore,” said Ram Matta, a St. Edward’s professor who accompanied the students on the trip. He is working with Gary Pletcher, the St. Edward’s MBA program global management chairman and professor who planned the trip, to expand these global courses to other countries.

“They’re beginning to realize you have to get out there, that having a first-hand look its not something you can learn in a book,” Matta said.

The trip to save the Costa Rican sea turtles is one of nearly a dozen such global business trips at St. Edward’s, which has also sent students to Belize, the Czech Republic and Germany in the past three years.

Georgetown University in Washington requires at least one such international course for graduation from its MBA program, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, up to 10 percent of students are enrolled in such courses at any one time.

The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas has also started offering what it calls Global Connections courses. The program, which started about three years ago, went from offering three or four trips a year to eight. It is one of the school’s most popular programs, with 240 students participating this past spring, said Deidra Stephens, the school’s Global Connections coordinator.

As U.S. imports from low-cost countries continue to soar, officials said, one need only look at the numbers to see where MBAs are finding the best investment opportunities.

In 2004, the United States imported about $1.5 trillion in goods, a 17 percent increase from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Those figures, school officials said, have led to more foreign MBA students opting to return to their own countries to start businesses. And now, American students are going with them.

Indeed, President Bush’s signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement this month might have opened up more opportunities to expand American exports and take advantage of cheaper labor in such places as Costa Rica.

“The U.S. has a kind of proven track record, and business there is very predictable,” said Stephen Hazelton, a former MIT student who grew up in Austin and is now a venture capitalist in working in Vietnam. He said he worked as a management consultant for a few years in the States before realizing he wanted to go global.

“It’s very intense, challenging and exciting to think I could help create jobs here,” he said.

The Costa Rica trip — think “Apprentice” meets “Survivor,” with about a dozen aspiring businessmen and businesswomen dropped into remote areas of southeastern Costa Rica — was the fourth time St. Edward’s business students have been to this small Central American country in the past several years. The trips, which cost students $500 to $1,500, last about a week.

While in Costa Rica, students worked with a nonprofit organization and learned how multinational corporations such as Procter & Gamble and Intel can lower costs and improve efficiencies by opening offices in other countries.

In one exercise, the students toured a sock producing plant to get an understanding of how a business with a truly global outlook is run. The socks, for instance, were sewn in Costa Rica on machines built in Italy to be sold in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“I’ll never look at a sock the same way again,” student Jaime Luna said.

Luna and his classmates found that ANAI’s biggest challenges were that it lacked focus and personnel and had internal communication problems. The solutions students recommended included making the ANAI Web site more user-friendly, developing an internship program to help with staffing shortages and establishing a turtle adoption program to increase revenue.

Pletcher said he wants students to generalize their experiences. He tells his students to prepare to be hot, uncomfortable and ready to adapt quickly while overseas.

The real joy comes in creating future business leaders who are adept in a global environment, he said.

“I get goosebumps when I know I’ve got four students global assignments, four more interviewing and two teaching these courses at other universities,” Pletcher said. “But the most rewarding thing for me is seeing the individual confidence of each student grow to the point … that they can truly become effective global business managers.”