Editor’s Note — This is an account of a course that took place before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and absorb a professor’s instruction. It’s another to apply what you’ve learned in a real-world setting — by working with an organization to solve executive-level business problems. And what if that real-world setting is another country with an emerging market?
“This type of course provides the most value,” said Tina Noronha, MBA’21, about the Kelley Evening MBA’s international consulting course that immerses students in an emerging market. “You can always learn in a classroom, but when you get the opportunity to apply what you’ve learned in the real world, you truly understand. We were able to consult with a small business, while traveling to a new country and learning a new market. Our intent was to help our clients, but we equally benefited from all that we gleaned from them. You can’t replace that experience.”
Twenty Kelley students traveled to Santiago, Chile to work with small businesses through the Evening MBA international consulting course. The goal of the course is to increase students’ global executive leadership skills as they solve a business problem for a company or nonprofit organization. They also gain cultural experience and better understand how business is done in different countries.
“Chile is a vibrant, growing market, and through this course, our students studied its economy, its markets and learned how business is done in different countries and cultures,” said Kyle Anderson, faculty chair of the Evening MBA Program and clinical assistant professor of business economics.
“The students made a meaningful impact on those small businesses,” added professor Anderson. “They’re able to apply what they learn in the classroom by merging lessons from all of the courses they’ve taken during the Evening MBA Program into a single project. It really enriches the entire experience and serves as a culmination of their graduate education.”
Through a partnership with the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Kelley faculty members identified four small businesses in Santiago that could benefit from Evening MBA student consulting teams. They included an office furniture design business, a technology and multimedia company, a plant and plant products business and a company that creates plant walls for outdoor and indoor spaces.
Groups of five students met remotely via Zoom with the businesses for two months. During that time, students learned about the organizations, what it’s like to do business in Chile and the challenges small businesses face in Latin America. They also identified and started working to solve a business problem for each organization. The course culminated in a week-long trip to Santiago, where students worked on-site with the businesses to modify the solutions they’d identified remotely. At the end of the week, the teams presented the small businesses with final solutions and implementation plans.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the Chile experience has been one of the pivotal moments of my career,” said Jonathan Jones, MBA’20. “I thought I had a career plan before the consulting course, but I enjoyed the project that I worked on so much that I can see myself doing this on a daily basis — working with people to figure out how to make their organizations better. It’s completely opposite of what I do in my job.”
“This course has been the most rewarding teaching experience of my career,” said professor Anderson. “From meeting entrepreneurs in a different country and learning about their amazing small businesses to watching the students come up with high-quality solutions on projects that made an impact, our students did incredible work, and the business owners were so appreciative. The students have had a transformative experience, and I am fortunate to be part of it.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that the Chile experience has been one of the pivotal moments of my career.”
The Projects: 3D Concept
One Chilean company, 3D Concept, focuses on office design, helping to import and install high-end furniture in corporate office spaces. Owner Jorge Andres asked Evening MBA students to help him improve processes for handling bids, assigning projects and tracking company performance measures.
Matthew Small, MBA’20, worked with 3D Concept.
“For me, this project was really different from what I do normally,” he explained. “I’m a chemical engineer, and there’s not much consulting work involved in that field. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to understand everything, and I had to trust my teammates, who were more familiar with some concepts I didn’t have experience with. We just had to listen and to be open.”
“With this project, everything that we’d learned in the Evening MBA Program came together. When you’re in class, often the lessons feel theoretical. In my current job, I don’t necessarily use all the skills I’ve learned in my classes so far. But working directly with a business, I was able to apply my skills in the real world.”
For 3D Concept, the Evening MBA team created a dashboard to help Jorge focus on key performance indicators that will allow him to more efficiently employ designers on projects that generate the most value — and to better serve his customers.
“I think the biggest takeaway from the consulting course is how different areas of the world do business,” said Matt. “In Chile, business culture is very much built on relationships. Data isn’t as important as meeting a supplier or customer and feeling comfortable around them and trusting them. Trust is a big deal in the U.S., but if you’re going to have a business relationship, there’s almost always a signed contract. In Chile, however, that’s not always the case. They rely on reciprocal trust relationships. It was very eye-opening to see that. I realized there’s not one way to do business.”
“We wanted 3D Concept to be able to express its business ideas to people outside of Chile, like new suppliers or customers,” added Matt. “We came up with a plan and provided the tools to track what they do. We also gave them a cultural understanding of why better tracking and recording might be important outside of Chile.”
“The students’ visit helped us to pause our daily activities and think about our practices: how we organize our work and how we see competitors, suppliers and the market. It’s been an excellent opportunity to focus on what brings value to our company,” said Jorge. “I liked the value proposition the students gave us. Once they saw our reality, they were able to adjust their initial ideas and propose concrete performance indicators. Their consulting job left us with an important set of recommendations to create and measure value for our company.”
The Projects: Cine 1
Another student group worked with Cine 1, a multimedia production company that wants to expand in the virtual reality market.
“This course helped me to see firsthand how a small business operates,” said Tina Noronha, MBA’21. “I’ve only worked in large companies, so the comparison was fascinating. It was also beneficial to work with four other Evening MBA students whose backgrounds and strengths are so different than mine. I learned something from each one of them, and they also helped me gain confidence in my own skill set.”
Juan Guillermo Prado, the principal owner of Cine 1, asked the team to help him better manage projects and identify markets segments for expansion.
“The most memorable experience with Cine 1 happened when we were in Santiago with the business,” said Tina. “We sat down with the Cine 1 team and discussed their branding and website. We did an exercise to talk about their core values and establish who they are and what they do. Everyone had a chance to share something, and their team loved it. They said they’d never done anything like that before, and it created a lot of buy-in from the Cine 1 team. To see the energy coming out of that exercise and how they were able to use it to update their mission statement was really rewarding.”
“When we were doing their value mapping, the Cine 1 team used the phrase ‘passionsick,’ meaning they want to do something new and innovative and creative,” said Nathan Keen, MBA’20. “We decided our project scope would be to enable passionsick to work and still make revenue. We worked to empower a passionsick environment, allowing them to be innovative and creative like they wanted to be, but we also found a way to focus on revenue streams at the same time.”
The Evening MBA students worked closely with Prado to understand the strategic mission and vision of the company. They also updated Cine 1’s website to convey its strategic vision and improved its process for handling customer inquiries, and they identified opportunities in the healthcare segment to use virtual reality to help patients better understand the medical process. Cine 1 is launching a prototype VR application and working to partner with a hospital system in Santiago to roll out the new product.
“We realized that no problem is actually small for a very small company,” said Nathan. “Addressing a real-world issue for a small company made me realize we can really make a difference in its development and growth, its revenue streams and its marketing.”
“This course gave me more confidence… I spent time thinking inwardly about what I contribute to a group and what more I can do.”
The Projects: Plant Art
Another Evening MBA student group worked with Plant Art, which specializes in creating high-end, plant-based sculptures and walls in shopping malls, parks and other public places. The owner, Alan Israel, sought to grow his green business to beautify the public spaces of Santiago and to reduce pollution and waste in the city. Installations are made from recycled products, and Plant Art’s unique plant walls reduce energy consumption for buildings in the city. This business faced a classic entrepreneur’s dilemma of managing growth while ensuring high-quality service for its clients.
“When we first started the project, we thought we would be heading one way with our problem and solution, but once we traveled to Chile and spoke with the company, we realized we also needed to work organizationally to help employees better work together and communicate as the company grew. We shifted to focus on organizational health and improving the foundation of the organization, so leaders could empower their teams to be successful,” said Jonathan Jones, MBA’20.
The Kelley Evening MBA team helped the owner of Plant Art streamline operations while also restructuring the roles and responsibilities of the management team, enabling the company to continue to grow and maintain profitability.
“This course gave me more confidence,” said Jonathan. “We spent time in Chile helping employees understand the power they have and the ability within their ideas to innovate. But I also spent time thinking inwardly about what I contribute to a group and what more I can do. We used personal experiences to give positive reinforcement and helped to humanize recommendations. I also got a chance to see firsthand what it’s like to run a small business, to deal with organizational issues. I realized that problems aren’t always highly technical and complex. Sometimes, it’s the things right in front of you that are the problem.”
“My advice to others working in groups like this: Leverage the strengths of your team members,” said Tina. “Find out what they’re good at and leverage that. It helped me to better solidify what I’m good at and what I can add to a team.”
“Another thing I learned is not to overlook the little things,” she added. “You may get caught up over-analyzing, but during this course, I learned the value of not overlooking the simple questions, like ‘Are they using templates for their financials?’”
“You have to keep it simple,” agreed Nathan. “In business school, we always look into the details and the calculations in order to understand the big picture — and you get involved with everything that’s going on in the business — but for these small businesses, they needed simple. Coming out of this, I think that’s going to be one of my major focuses, to ask myself: Where can I make the simplest changes and make the biggest impact?”
“The capstone course gave me an enormous amount of confidence moving forward,” said Matt. “Wherever my career takes me after I graduate, I’ll be able to successfully use what I learned during this course and be able to make a difference. I have so much pride in what we did, and moving forward, I think I’ll have the confidence to go into any business setting and do the same thing.”
To other students, they say this international consulting course may help you find something you didn’t even know you were interested in.
“It definitely helps you flex your muscles because the business acumen you learn from your MBA is only valuable when you learn how to apply it,” said Jonathan. “It’s not enough to learn accounting and finance alone — You need to learn how those individual tools are applicable to various companies. Not everything is a cookie-cutter answer. Sometimes, you have to think out-of-the-box to implement the change you want.”
“This was the best class I’ve taken,” said Matt. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
In a Snapshot: The Week in Santiago
Saturday and Sunday: Student teams from the Kelley School of Business Evening MBA Program arrive in Santiago, Chile. The weekend is dedicated to experiencing the city. Evening MBA students walk downtown to the various markets, including the fish market, where lunch is fresh and excellent. Two students take a cooking class to learn more about Chilean food. Several students hike, while others take a gondola to San Cristobal hill for beautiful views of the city and the Andes mountains surrounding Santiago.
Monday: Evening MBA students and small business clients participate in a kickoff breakfast at the hotel. After working with the clients for eight weeks remotely, it is great to finally meet them in person. After breakfast, clients take the student teams to their businesses to meet employees and learn more about each organization’s operations.
Tuesday and Wednesday: Evening MBA students work with the client businesses. The 3D Concept team attends meetings with customers and suppliers to better understand the relationship between the company and its partners. The Plant Art team visits a luxury shopping mall where Plant Art maintains gorgeous plant walls and topiaries. The Cine 1 team participates in demonstrations of the company’s virtual reality products. Later, teams re-group for dinner with the clients, and into the evening, they continue working on their projects.
Thursday: Each team makes recommendations for their clients that will boost sales, improve processes or help with organizational structure. Company employees learn from the Evening MBA students as students learn from them. The 3D Concept team creates a dashboard to help the management group better track projects and measure company performance. Once recommendations are made, teams work with clients to implement new processes.
Friday: Evening MBA student teams reconvene with their clients in the morning to continue the implementation process. In the afternoon, all four teams, along with clients, convene for a celebratory lunch at Mestizo, a well-known restaurant in Santiago.
Saturday and Sunday: Evening MBA students continue exploring Santiago. Most students fly home over the weekend, but a few will spend extra days in South America on a well-deserved vacation.
Cine 1 made a video about the visit and experience, which you can view here.