By Sara Lettie

Alvaro Mendizabal (Class of 2016) appreciates the importance of a global education and has taken full advantage of global academic opportunities offered to him while completing his MBA at Darden.  Alvaro has gone on three Global Business Experiences (GBEs) to Barcelona, China, and Cuba. These global academic programs gave Alvaro a chance to participate in more in-depth discussions about international strategies, challenges associated with international markets, and the importance of culture which helped to create a tighter bond with fellow students. Alvaro grew up in Peru before coming to the United States for his undergraduate degree. He then spent two years in Germany where he got a master’s degree in music before coming to Darden.

The “Strategy as Design” GBE led by Jeanne Liedtka in Barcelona offered Alvaro a better understanding of the relationship between the arts and business strategies.  Although Alvaro had spent time traveling in Spain before attending the Barcelona GBE, the discussion about the historical importance helped him gain a better understanding of the history of art and culture and its relation to the business world. The majority of course abroad involved hands-on learning by exploring Barcelona and applying the observations and historical conceptions to business strategy as a design. “Spain provided an ideal backdrop because it offered significant and unique historical context, the professor was both interesting and effective in her teaching methods, and the topic provided and alternative way to interpret problems,” shared Alvaro. As a classical music scholar, Alvaro found these strategies equally helpful and relatable.

As China becomes an increasingly significant economy, Alvaro also wanted to learn more about both the Chinese culture and business environment. “The GBE to China led by Professor Lipson was unique to any other experience because of the insightful look into Chinese factories and business ethics” say Alvaro. While in China the class visited a GM factory and the third largest steel factory in the world. Discussions with top executives at both companies offered insights into how China influences conduct. Professor Lipson facilitated discussions that dove deeper into Chinese policy like the 50-50 public private partnership in effect for companies operating in China. Alvaro also commented on the differences in work ethic, “the Chinese work ethic is all encompassing and cannot be understood without being there.” The pre-departure class led by Lipson established that everyone has a misconception about China on some level which can only be exposed through direct interactions. While on the walking tour the class saw different parts of Shanghai and were able to get of feel of the culture and consumers that make up the Chinese economy. This tour offered a more in-depth look at the Chinese culture that helps to influence the business environment, like the fish markets and everyday lives of Chinese citizens.

Alvaro also saw the relationship between business and culture during his time on the Cuba GBE. Professor Fairchild led second year students in exploring different entrepreneurial start-ups and the challenges of economies in transition. Before leaving for Cuba, Darden faculty discussed their research to the GBE class. These sessions offered different perspectives on the non-western economic policy instituted by Cuba. As in China, Alvaro met leaders, like the Governor of Virginia and other government officials who helped to illustrate the challenges of doing business internationally. Through the lens of a cab driver, Alvaro was able to explore the problem-solving tactics used by many Cubans in order to make a living. For example, the cab driver was using a car from 1956, described as a “Frankenstein car” because it was held together from an assortment of parts that only slightly resembled the original model. Although the government valued the car at a relatively affordable price the actual cost accumulated to beyond a reasonable amount from extensive taxes. As a result it was nearly impossible for the cab driver to make any profit. Due to the lack of access to a foreign market, he was only able to gain a competitive advantage because he had relatives abroad who could send cheap car parts. By utilizing his family network, the cab driver was able to create a profitable business. “These things nurture your strategy thinking. It is valuable to think about how people maneuver their business environment. With only 207 sanctioned jobs outside the Cuban government business owners and entrepreneurs have to think outside the box to be effective,” says Alvaro, who ultimately found that “it’s all about the people. In the end, businesses are made by the people. In Cuba you can have the best plan but if you don’t have an understanding of the people or the government you won’t be successful.”

Alvaro Mendizabal concluded his reflections by stating that “Everyone should go on a Global Business Experience. We can’t assume people will act like American consumers.”