South Africa Global Business Experience 2014–Student Reflections

Over spring break, 80 Darden students went on Global Business Experiences (GBEs). Students took these on-site courses led by Darden faculty in Shanghai, China (Prof. Marc Lipson); Barcelona, Spain (Prof. Jeanne Liedtka); Cape Town/Johannesburg, South Africa (Prof. Mary Margaret Frank) and Copenhagen, Denmark (Prof. Elliott Weiss).

RohanGuptaFirst Year student, Rohan Gupta, recently shared his reflections on his South Africa GBE in our Darden student newspaper, The Cold Call Chronicle.  The South Africa GBE was comprised of thirty-one First Year and Second Year students and led by Professor Mary Margaret Frank. Rohan’s article is re-posted below.

Its 4:30 AM, I am out of bed and I am already late. I quickly change my clothes, brush my teeth, grab my camera and run out of the cottage towards the reception where everyone is hopefully waiting for me. It’s still dark so I stumble a couple of times. Thankfully everyone is still here, I get in one of the jeeps and we are off!

This was my first morning on the South Africa GBE in March 2014. We were in Kruger National Park, one of the largest and most famous game reserves in Africa. That morning we saw a leopard, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and hyenas. We saw these animals closest to their natural environment. It was a truly remarkable experience. Once on that jeep, I quickly forgot about my struggle getting out of bed in the morning.

If I start describing the amazing experiences I had in South Africa, I would need this whole newspaper! So I am going to tell you about the three main reasons why I loved this GBE. The first was the sheer variety of experiences we had. It all started with a couple of days on safari. In the next seven days, we learned about South Africa’s history with a focus on apartheid and its impact on the country. We visited nine companies in industries as varied as boat building, wine making, telecom and the Department of Agriculture. And we found time to climb Table Mountain, take in a sunset cruise and explore Cape Town in the middle of it all. There was not a single minute to get bored!

The second reason I loved this GBE was the people – our hosts in South Africa, the people we met over there from various companies, and the most amazing group of people from Darden. We were hosted by the Stellenbosch University, which basically meant that they helped setup a lot of the logistics and meetings for us in South Africa. Someone from the university was with us throughout the journey and their local knowledge and anecdotes made us feel at home. I was totally floored by the friendliness and openness of South Africans. We asked lot of questions and received honest replies and reflections. Sensitive issues such as race were energetically and openly discussed. Given South Africa’s painful history of apartheid, it looked to me that South Africans have learnt to tackle these issues head-on. Hearing about and discussing these unique challenges was very different from the USA or other parts of the world. Before I went on this GBE, I probably knew only five of the thirty students who were with me on the trip. By the time we finished, I knew all of them.  Ten days of intense learning and fun bought us together.

And lastly, I took away some important lessons of doing business in a global context. Multi-national companies face unique challenges in serving local customers. Africa has a very different customer base than USA and Europe. They also have different environmental, socio-economic and regulatory conditions. The difference is perhaps most apparent for a cosmetics company. We had a conversation with the CEO of Elizabeth Arden South Africa. The typical customer for them in USA is a white, relatively older female. But their typical customer in Africa is the black young female. For the first few years, they did not have the rsouth africa gbe 2014equired color products to serve this local customer! They were convinced that what sold in USA will sell in South Africa. We learned that even for a company like them, it was difficult for the South Africa managers to convince the HQ managers in USA to innovate products and processes to specifically serve the local customer.

South Africa’s rich history, diversity and natural beauty were a treat to explore. Though we only scratched the surface, it was an experience to remember. It has inspired me to visit South Africa again in the future, this time for much longer than ten days.

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