Top Government Officials Greet Study Trip Participants

Stanford GSB MBA study trips visit India, Israel, and the Philippines.

January 01, 2006

Meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Israeli elder statesman and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, and former Philippine President Corazon Aquino highlighted winter holiday 2005 study trips organized by Stanford MBA students.

Each year, student trips offer a brief but intensive learning experience in parts of the world of interest to Business School students. Alumni or classmates who have previously worked or studied in the countries involved may help students arrange meetings with leaders of major corporations and nonprofit agencies, as well as governmental leaders. Here are some observations from trip participants.

During our time with him, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed three topics: entrepreneurship, development, and education. India has always been an entrepreneurial country, he said, even during British colonialism. After Indian independence, the nation’s government had a major role in developing industry. Though this relationship between the state and enterprise created inefficiencies, India still managed GDP growth of 4 to 5 percent annually through the late 1970s. As the state’s role in enterprise declined through a series of economic reforms in the 1980s and, more significantly, in the 1990s, private enterprise blossomed, causing the growth rate to accelerate to today’s 6 to 7 percent rate. “Additional economic reforms are necessary to further liberate private enterprise to create more jobs and innovate,” he concluded.

Discussing India’s transition from a developing nation into a developed one, PM Singh said that by accelerating India’s economic growth by 2 to 3 percent annually, the nation’s GDP growth could hit 10 percent and enter the ranks of the developed economies. The improvement of infrastructure is critical to this effort, he said, particularly since rural communities are largely cut off from the rest of India. He said that infrastructure improvements, particularly roads, would enable rural areas to begin catching up with growth in urban centers. He also argued that foreign direct investment would increase significantly as India’s transportation and power infrastructure improved.

PM Singh concluded our meeting by sharing his views on education. Social needs in India require improving education and the participation rate of children in education. He argued that the latter is as pressing an issue as the former, as short-term economic needs drive children to work. India’s goal is to provide universal education for children to the age of 14, but in many areas, particularly rural areas, India’s performance is poor. He also called for greater inclusion of young girls in the educational system. Girls have a much lower literacy rate than boys, which indicates that they are being ignored in the current system. PM Singh argued that shrinking this gap will help India slow down its population growth rate as young women will be able to make better choices. He added that India’s higher education system is world-class and a significant driver to economic growth.

A year ago, a most uncanny group — five Israelis and two Americans; six Jews and one Christian; two women and five men; seven wildly different individuals — came together under one dream: to take our classmates to Israel. For some of the leadership and the trip participants, there was a deep-seated desire to share their homeland with the Stanford Graduate School of Business community. For others, it was a new adventure to discover the politics, religion, and history of this mystical place in greater detail. For all of us, it was a time for 40 students, significant others, and professors to truly explore, learn, and bond.

Our 10-day excursion throughout Israel gave me a wealth of information (that I am still processing) and a whole host of funny stories, serious topics, and interesting business ideas I want to discuss with my classmates. So what do I tell you when I have such a short amount of your time to pique your interest in a country that is full of intriguing contradictions: modern structures standing by ruins, peacefulness and fun alongside unrest, a religious state with an ever-increasing youth population with secular mindsets? I think the most important thing to tell you is that I believe.

I believe in Israel’s entrepreneurialism. We kicked off our trip with Ofra Strauss of Strauss-Elite, and no doubt by the end of the presentation, I believed in her organization’s ability to compete head-to-head with the largest food companies in the world. Gil Shwed of Check Point Software Technologies, Roni Naftali of Eden Springs, and franchiser Omri Padan further fanned this flame for me. The fighting, scrappy nature of this country has produced a unique business culture of true rainmakers who believe in their ability to grow a business and expand the economy from the ground up.

I believe in embracing the unknown: Historically, there is so much to see and learn from Israel’s past. We took a number of tours during which we saw ruins dating back thousands of years that evoked discussions and intense emotions. For some of us, experiencing the Holy Land at Christmas was an emotional high that we struggle to find the words to explain. Walking through Yad Vashem reminded us of both the evilness that can exist and the resiliency of the human spirit. Yet amongst all of this history, there is an air of “what is to come?” that needs to be embraced positively. Will there ever be peace?

I believe there can and will be peace. Honestly, I was skeptical during our study trip. We had the great fortune of meeting Shimon Peres and Benyamin Netanyahu in addition to military intelligence officers, government officials, and religious leaders. At times I sat listening in despair as great minds such as these disagreed so vehemently about solutions to peace. However, as I reflect post-trip, I am struck by two encouraging thoughts: 1) Despite disagreements, they keep talking, and 2) the young want peace. We were visited at Stanford by a great group of four Israeli college students whose ideas and grassroots efforts remind me civil rights-era activists who sat at forbidden lunch counters in the American South or who decided that the end of educational segregation had to begin with nine bold students walking through an Arkansas school door. The common man’s fight can exceed government’s reluctance, and I believe Israel has this on its side.

What were some of the best meetings on the study trip?

FP: The most inspirational meeting for me was the one with Corazon Aquino. For those who don’t know who she is, she was Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 1986. After her husband, a popular senator-in-exile, was assassinated in 1983, this former housewife rose to power in 1986, becoming the Philippines’ first female president, overturning a strongly entrenched dictatorship led by Ferdinand Marcos.

People poured into the streets as part of a generally peaceful “People Power” movement to signal that they were done with silently accepting a corrupt regime increasingly careless with abuses of power. Amazing! And even at the age of 73, she’s still active in caring about the socioeconomic development of the country, being heavily involved in microfinance initiatives.

BM: I, too, agree with Felix that our most interesting meeting was with Corazon Aquino. She is a national figure — actually a world figure — who defied a dictator and reformed a nation. The catch was that she was a housewife who no one ever suspected would become president. Despite all her accomplishments, she remained soft-spoken, warm, intelligent, and inspirational. I felt that even if you did not know her background, you knew she was someone tremendously special.

The other meeting that I felt was impressive was visiting a weaving outfit in Kalibo (a small town away from the capital) before going to hit the beaches in Boracay. It was a micro-operation, but it was typical of the contracts that a lot of high-profile brands have in third-world countries. This operation made handmade reed-woven purses, pillowcases, and handbags, etc. for Calvin Klein. Ask any of the fashion experts on our trip, and they will proudly tell you that they now know what the latest fad to hit the Stanford Shopping Center this spring will be. I am not a fashion expert, but I will tell you that I bought a few things and my wife loved them!

What was the most memorable moment for you on the study trip?

FP: I think there were quite a few, but scuba-diving for the first time in my life at the beach resort we were at ranks right up there. I did the introductory course. It was simply amazing to be able to breathe underwater and to see the aquatic life that existed 10 meters below sea level. I felt like a fish!

But the hissing sound that came from my air tank was worrying”¦ despite my instructor’s assurances. Somehow, “Yes, air is leaking but you will have enough,” just wasn’t the most reassuring thing to hear. And my mother clearly didn’t share my newfound enthusiasm for scuba-diving. When I told her about the experience, she said, “You mean like a giant aquarium?” That definitely put a new perspective to it!

Some of us also very briefly got to be TV stars. [It was] arranged for us to be interviewed live on a breakfast show. That was another incredible experience for us, to see what goes behind the scenes in a live production and to actually be a part of the whole show.

BM: I would have to say it was meeting [someone] who exclaimed when she saw me, “I saw you on TV this morning”¦ actually at least a million people saw you this morning.” You know, after that the paparazzi just never let up the rest of the trip. I am kidding about the paparazzi, but not the comment. I wonder if my 15 seconds of fame have been used up; my wife says I probably have five left so I shouldn’t worry too much about it.

Final parting impressions of the Philippines?

FP: It’s still a very family business — oriented environment. We met with the major conglomerates, all of which are family-run, and I think the winners will be those who manage the transition to professional management the best. There is a huge entrepreneurial opportunity for anyone able to understand what works well in a developed country and has the ability to do a “copy-and-paste” execution of that in the Philippines.

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