Study Trips Add Perspective for MBA Students

Structured trips provide intellectual and emotional experiences with other cultures for Stanford MBA students learning to lead in a global economy.

January 31, 2011

In a second-floor conference room in Mexico City, 40 students from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business waited eagerly for their audience with the world’s richest man. An aide to billionaire Carlos Slim prepared the cherry wood table with a pad of paper, freshly sharpened pencils, and a doorbell-style buzzer, used by Slim to summon assistants. The Mexican tycoon made his entrance dressed in an off-the-rack suit from Sears Mexico, part of his business empire. During the next 2½ hours, Slim held forth on topics ranging from his businesses and philanthropic activities to the value of capitalism, impressing the MBA students with his inexhaustible ability to recall details of deals he had struck decades earlier.


The Moment: Talking with Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world and later meeting with 20 women who can barely afford to feed their kids. The issue: Doing business in a nation where extreme wealth and extreme poverty exist side by side.

Mexico. The Moment: Talking with Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world and later meeting with 20 women who can barely afford to feed their kids. The Issue: Doing business in a nation where extreme wealth and extreme poverty exist side by side.


Two days later, on the outskirts of Mexico City, students met with women who had taken out loans as little as a few hundred dollars each from a microfinance bank to fund their tiny enterprises. The Stanford group made its way past rough cinderblock houses, many with steel rebar jutting up from unfinished construction. Under a blue tarp in the courtyard of one home, they listened as one by one the women told their stories of using microcredit to eke out livelihoods such as renting out dresses, making trinkets, and selling jewelry.

The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor — all within an hour’s drive. Mexico’s wealth disparity “is certainly not a secret,” says Dupree Scovell, MBA Class of ‘11, a participant in the March 2010 trip. “But you don’t really understand it until you have a chance to sit in a boardroom with Carlos Slim and then go to a meeting with 20 women who can barely afford to feed their kids. That gives you a whole other level of understanding.”

That’s exactly the point. With global experience a required part of the MBA curriculum since 2007, international trips are designed to give students on-the-ground experience that goes beyond what can be learned in a classroom — broadening their thinking and developing knowledge and skills to manage in a globalized economy. Led by second-year students who gain leadership experience and accompanied by a faculty member, trip participants (mostly first-year students) delve into a geographical area studying industries, management, and societal issues. For 8 to 10 jam-packed days in December and March, Stanford GSB students fan out to immerse themselves in the culture of countries where they have never lived or worked, meeting with business leaders, innovators, nonprofit organizers, and even heads of state. At a school where one-third of MBA candidates are from outside the United States, the travel usually is shepherded by students who want to show off their native countries and can open doors back home.

Many recent graduates remember the trips as a highlight, if not the highlight, of their MBA education. “There’s no better learning than going on the ground,” declares Abdulaziz Al-Arifi, MBA ‘10, who co-led an inside look at his home country of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“You get a lot of aha moments you can never experience through a case study or a book or a lecture,” says Baba Shiv, the Sanwa Bank Limited Professor of Marketing, who has been on five global study trips. There are about 20 annually. “These kinds of experiences allow students to go through memorable moments that stick.”

Global study trips, with about 40 participants each, provide broad business and cultural exposure to a country. Service learning trips of about 20 people each focus on a specific social or economic theme, such as health care in India or education in South Africa, and also include a service opportunity, such as a consulting project for a local nonprofit group.

To be sure, traveling and studying abroad is nothing new in higher education. In earlier centuries, young aristocrats from America, England, and elsewhere took the “Grand Tour” of Europe to gain exposure to the arts, culture, and roots of Western civilization. By the late 1960s, Stanford was sending 55% of its undergraduates abroad (more than any other U.S. university), mostly to its own programs in Europe. At Stanford GSB, students have been organizing trips since the mid-1980s, generally as an extracurricular activity.

Today, most Stanford MBA students choose to go on either a global study trip or a service learning trip to fulfill the school’s “global experience” requirement. School Dean Garth Saloner says the requirement “is the element of the new curriculum that has surprised me most in terms of its impact.” By introducing observations from the trips into class discussions, “the students have globalized the curriculum,” he told an Alumni Weekend audience. Discussions are “more global-centric rather than U.S.-centric,” says Muhammed Mekki, MBA ‘10, who went on a trip to India and co-led the Saudi Arabia-UAE travel.

By most accounts the trips fulfill the mission of providing experiential learning that enhances classroom instruction. Carole Robin, a lecturer in organizational behavior who has accompanied students to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Brazil, sees two benefits. One is “conceptual,” broadening knowledge of global issues, management, and leadership issues, or of a country or industry. The other is “personal,” which revolves around exercising leadership, getting to know other students better, and having a meaningful and fun experience.


India. The Issue: Using social engineering to change the way people behave. The Moment: Learning that the New Delhi metro system had trained volunteers to form lines and model orderly conduct in stations and on trains.

India. The Issue: Using social engineering to change the way people behave. The Moment: Learning that the New Delhi metro system had trained volunteers to form lines and model orderly conduct in stations and on trains.


Often, people learn when their preconceived notions about a country, or the way things are done, are debunked. For instance, on a study trip to India in December 2008, Stanford GSB travelers were astounded when they went underground to a metro station in New Delhi. “It struck all of us — this doesn’t seem like what we saw 100 feet above. There’s no chaos, everybody’s standing in line, everybody’s being polite, the carriages are clean. How could this have happened? This is Delhi, the city of chaos,” Shiv recalls. Later, in a meeting with the head of the metro system, the group learned that, before the transit system first opened, volunteers had been trained to form lines at every carriage door to “model” orderly behavior. “They were using social engineering as a way to change the way people behave,” Shiv says.

Along with the global experience requirement, Stanford GSB in 2007 introduced a mandatory first-year course, Global Context of Management, where students develop a framework for analyzing the differences among countries and how they affect management. “Study in advance affects the perceptual lens through which we experience a country,” says William Barnett, the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations, who teaches the class. But, he adds, “A conceptual understanding only goes so far. One also has to have an experience to apply that understanding. There is no substitute for being on the ground in a country and seeing the differences.”

Faculty members play a key role in helping students make sense of their travel experiences, especially in the frequent debriefing sessions during a trip. In Turkey, participants were asked what they would need to know if they were head of a multinational company in the country. In South Africa, they were asked to define their role and responsibilities if they were a CEO during apartheid. “It raised the question of what is the role of a CEO beyond increasing shareholder value. It gave a deeper meaning to it,” says David L. Bradford, the Eugene D. O’Kelly II Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Emeritus, who accompanied students on trips to each country.

Study trips enable students to see complexities and nuances that aren’t evident in a class. Complexities quickly became apparent on the March trip to Mexico, which had been billed as a chance to experience “doing business in a country of contrasts.” After the meeting with Slim, whose businesses in telecom, construction, retailing, and other areas touch virtually every aspect of Mexican life, Stanford GSB students debated questions such as how far capitalism should go and what role government should play in curbing monopolies and protecting the poor.

Their meeting with the poor Mexican women sparked discussion about the workings and ethics of microfinance. Microfinance lenders have been criticized for charging exorbitant interest rates to the poor and fostering a dependence on debt. “The model in Mexico is moving the needle for Mexico’s poor. But I wondered if it was truly breaking the cycle of poverty for the women we met,” says Erik Kronstadt, MBA Class of ‘11. Classmate Will Boenig adds: “I got to appreciate the complexity and the challenge of elevating the bottom of the pyramid.”

The group visited the Mexican women accompanied by loan officers from Compartamos Banco, a publicly traded company that is Latin America’s largest microfinance bank. Many of the students had been skeptical about whether lending to the poor can be a profitable business. “It was shocking for us to see a model like that actually being profitable,” Scovell says. In addition, his eyes were opened to the possibility of doing business in Mexico. After the trip, he convinced his family, which owns a real estate development company in Dallas, to pursue business partners in Mexico. “There really is much more opportunity than I considered. Before, we would have said it was too dangerous and too hard.”

In a different hemisphere, a delegation including Saloner obtained hard-to-get visas for Saudi Arabia, part of a December 2009 journey that also included the UAE. Al-Arifi, organizer of the Saudi portion of the trip, was eager to showcase his homeland. “Culturally, there are many things people in the U.S. don’t know about [Saudi Arabia]. I felt an obligation to show my country through my eyes.”

Like many of his American peers, Sam Edelson, MBA Class of ‘11, had associated Saudi Arabia mostly with oil and the desert. He was surprised by the diversification. For example, the group was briefed about plans for the King Abdullah Economic City, a Washington, D.C.-size city that will feature a seaport, rail system, resorts, industry, and residences. “A real-life SimCity” is how he describes it. “I was amazed. I thought it would be all oil. I hadn’t realized they were diversifying away from oil. The country was being very forward thinking.”

Social differences were particularly apparent to the women traveling in Saudi Arabia. They donned black robes, or abayas, to comply with local rules. “I actually found myself shuffling along and looking at the ground because I was afraid I would make eye contact,” recalls Amanda Luther, MBA Class of ‘11. She found it noteworthy that the Saudi women they met were generally accepting of the gender restrictions, which also include a ban on women driving and separation from men while dining in restaurants.

Many Stanford GSB students were struck by the open-mindedness of the Saudi business elite. A Stanford GSB alumnus and former executive of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, hosted a dinner party at his beach home for the Stanford group and 40 colleagues, mostly Western-educated. “They really wanted society to move forward and be more open. I didn’t realize the upper class was so progressive-thinking in terms of creating change,” Edelson says.


Sweden & Denmark. The Issue: Can Scandinavian companies be competitive globally in a high tax, high wage, and highly regulated environment? The Moment: Meeting with companies that valued regulation, collaborated with labor, and found having skilled worker

Sweden & Denmark. The Issue: Can Scandinavian companies be competitive globally in a high tax, high wage, and highly regulated environment? The Moment: Meeting with companies that valued regulation, collaborated with labor, and found having skilled workers a competitive advantage.


Inevitably, students who go on these organized trips gain a broader view of how different economic systems work. On a March 2010 trek to Denmark and Sweden, Stanford GSB travelers looked at the “welfare state” in Scandinavia — compressed wage scales, high taxes, heavy unionization, and extensive government-funded social benefits such as education, health care, and environmental protection. Seeing the system in action challenged preconceptions.

“I had assumed it created inefficiencies because it didn’t follow U.S.[-style] free market ideas,” recalls Dan Maas, MBA Class of ‘11. Some wondered how a company could be globally competitive in a high-tax, high-wage environment. They assumed that, with relatively slight differences in pay between the high- and low-skilled workers, Scandinavian employers were paying relatively more for low-skilled workers and were therefore less competitive with countries such as China. In fact, companies told them the opposite: Swedish telecom giant Ericsson believed that it was getting engineering talent for relatively little, and Danish pharmaceutical maker Novo Nordisk said the wage structure made employing a large research and development staff cost effective.

Students also took away a deeper understanding of the collectivist nature of Scandinavian society. They were struck by the amount of trust companies and individuals placed in government and the buy-in to regulation. An executive of Danish shipping line Maersk said, “We see regulation as an opportunity” since it benefits the most efficient and least polluting companies. They also saw a collaborative relationship between companies and labor unions. Unlike in the United States, “they were at the same table,” says Jack Turner, MBA Class of ‘11. For him, the biggest surprise was getting puzzled looks whenever a student asked about the Scandinavian welfare model. “People would say, ‘What are you talking about?’” he recalls. “For them, it’s just the way they do things.” Their reactions made him realize how important culture is in shaping the lens through which people view the world. “The bottom line is to check your assumptions.”

Assumptions also are challenged on trips to developing countries, where students learn about the roles of business, government, and nonprofits in economic development. Researching Guatemala’s coffee supply chain, Stanford GSB students picked coffee beans for a morning on a steep hill, then learned that they had earned less than $2 as day laborers, not enough to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee in California. “It was one of those big moments, an aha moment, in terms of what the supply chain means in human terms,” recalls Tom Mercer, MBA ‘10/MS ‘10. After meeting with Guatemalan coffee regulators, agricultural nonprofits, and other players in the coffee supply chain, the students also realized that much of the profit is in the hands of coffee roasters, with very little filtering down to small local growers.

Thailand. The Issue: Contraception aids for sex workers as a tool to battle sexually transmitted disease. The Moment: Passing out condoms to sex workers challenged student beliefs about what was right and wrong and how to promote change.

On a service trip to Cambodia and Thailand, students met with a Bangkok nonprofit group renowned for its work in alleviating poverty and improving public health. Guided by the group, students passed out condoms to sex-industry workers in a red-light district to highlight the importance of protection in battling sexually transmitted diseases. The activity had shock value, but also a purpose. “It was incredibly uncomfortable. That’s why it was memorable,” recalls Lazeena Rahman, MBA ‘10/MPP Class of ‘12. “It challenged a lot of people’s beliefs about what was right and wrong and the conceptions of how you can create change.”

No trip experience is more intense, perhaps, than being among the two to six students leading a journey. Leaders don’t just put together a trip, they design an experience. Responsibilities can stretch beyond a year, requiring hundreds of hours of work from each leader to secure meetings with VIPs and to nail down travel logistics. The leadership teams must make joint decisions, allocate the workload, and manage a trip budget. Shepherding peers can be challenging because leaders don’t have formal authority over other students. Yet they are responsible for 20 to 40 MBA students, often with Type A personalities, who want to gain deep insights and have fun at the same time. “You have to coordinate or coerce your classmates or colleagues,” Bradford says. “How do you build a cohesive learning community? How do you develop norms? How do you make sure things work well?”

Leadership in this context is about the “influence process.” Bradford and Robin created and taught a five-week course to help trip organizers develop their leadership skills. The class included role playing and discussions of how to establish a vision and handle critical incidents such as a speaker canceling at the last minute or students on the trip rebelling against a packed schedule.

“The most enriching experience for me at Stanford GSB was leading a trip — sourcing meetings, being responsible for participants, having everybody happy,” says Santiago Rivera Torres, MBA ‘10, who went on a trip to Turkey and co-led the journey to his native Mexico.

Faculty members say study trips also provide fodder for teaching. The trips “allow me to generalize in a more appropriate way, to generalize what we teach and see some of the cultural differences,” Bradford says. They also provide faculty with a broader set of examples and topics. For example, after a Chile-Argentina study trip exposed Shiv to how Chilean farmers raise salmon ecologically, he introduced a class discussion on marketing salmon as a premium eco-product rather than a commodity.

Hau Lee, the Thoma Professor of Operations, Information and Technology, who teaches global supply chain management, says study trips have helped him develop case studies and to teach them more effectively. “The teaching dimensions are tremendous,” Lee says.

Whether they are teaching or learning, many members of the business school community have discovered something simple but powerful: Experiencing the world is to understand it.

Maria Shao, Stanford Business Magazine Online

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More

June 16, 2022
Dual ceremonies celebrate Classes of 2020 and 2022.
A group of four students in their cap and gowns smiling at the camera on graduation day. Best Grad Photo Inc.

June 09, 2022
Authenticity, equity, and freedom. Representation and belonging. Inclusivity, empathy, and safety.
Collage of colorful portraits of students of the GSB pride club, smiling, laughing, and looking serious. Photos by Elena Zhukova

June 02, 2022
This Stanford Executive Program course used virtual reality to help business leaders embrace an “improviser’s mindset.”
Women who are lit in bright red and blue in a dark room wearing VR glasses. Credit: iStock/tolgart