MBA student Kressen Anderson traveled to South America as part of the Marketing in Emerging Markets class this past January. This is the second time she participated in a J-term study abroad with the Evening MBA program, the first being a trip to Taiwan, Shanghai and Hong Kong in 2014 to study global finance. We asked her to share some of her experiences from the trip.
The majority of our time in South America, split between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, was spent visiting a variety of businesses learning about how they operate in their markets, how they are expecting to grow and what challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. Topics ranged from marketing tactics, retail space, social media, diversity and corporate social responsibility. We spent time together as a class during the fall semester learning about these countries and researching today’s challenges when operating a business in Latin America.
Buenos Aires, regardless of its size, has the ability to make you feel at home immediately. Maybe because it was the first leg of our trip and we were still in a bit of culture shock, but once we were able to let go of the North American “hustle and bustle” attitude, the city swept us up in its laid-back atmosphere. It’s basically mandatory to enjoy a glass of wine with just about every meal which will also almost definitely involve some sort of beef. It’s worth it, trust me.
Wine and beef are two of Argentina’s main exports and the products that we were able to sample lived up to the expectations. During our first full day there as a class, our professors arranged for a city-wide scavenger hunt you can only describe as baptism by fire as a way of introducing and acclimating us to the city quickly. This allowed us to see some major sights as well as get comfortable with being independent travelers in a foreign city.
We also had the opportunity to hear presentations from Edelman (a PR company), Sony and MercadoLibre.com (an online marketplace) as well as tour a General Mills manufacturing plant. In a very un-timely coincidence, the night before our first business meeting, Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor who had just recently brought to light accusations against top Argentine officials, including the President, regarding a possible cover-up of a 1994 suicide bombing that left 85 people dead in Buenos Aires, was found dead in his apartment. This was also the day before he was to testify about those accusations. This made global headlines and each presenter we heard from expressed a common theme of distrust for the Argentine government, not only in relation to the prosecutor’s puzzling death but also in the much broader sense of the ease of doing business. They all spoke of government controls and the volatility of the Argentine peso, which encourages Argentine citizens to hold onto U.S. dollars, if only for the sense of security. The illegal market rate for dollars in Argentina, which was referred to as the “Blue Dollar Rate,” is commonplace when exchanging money and basically gets a person with dollars a 50% discount of the inflated official rate. With whatever problems the U.S. has had with our economy since 2008, it does not compare to the daily struggles of Argentinians.
Rio De Janeiro, by contrast, was a fast-moving city thrown right into your lap. The vibrant colors, street vendors and the smell of food from open-air restaurants are the result of relaxed culture mixed with a metropolitan attitude. When you step out on to the sidewalk and look down the street straight into the South Atlantic, it’s hard to focus on anything but the ocean. The beach life is something to be envied but involved many quick dashes to the safety of a sun umbrella for a Minnesotan in January! Brazilian culture allows a person to be their true self while enjoying the beauty of the beach with friends and family. People of all shapes and sizes, young and old, bikinis and speedos, are welcome, come as you are and enjoy. It’s a refreshing change to allow your own self-consciousness to melt away.
During our time there, we again had the opportunity to visit several businesses. One of our more profound experiences was working with a group called Green My Favela. The favela’s (slums) in Rio are a prominent part of the Rio culture and landscape. Green My Favela is a non-profit organization working toward building public gardens in some of the lowest economic areas of the city. We spent time working with them to clean out one of their latest projects, which involved picking up a lot of trash, so that the space would be available to the community. Some other businesses we heard presentations from were Brookfield (a land-development company), Axis Biotech and Environmental Resources Management. Other than the beach, our free time allowed us to sight-see construction going on for the upcoming 2016 Olympics and were able to watch a lightning storm roll over Rio from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Yes, we were at the top of a mountain during a lightning storm. And, of course, we rode up the trolley to set our sights upon Christ the Redeemer, one of most recognizable wonders of the world, which you can see from just about anywhere in Rio. It’s truly unlike anything you have ever seen, so massive and yet there is almost a delicate balance to it.
When summing up this trip, not only for this post but also in conversations with my classmates, one of the recurring themes is not necessarily the amazing cities we visited but the relationships we formed with each other while we were there. I am now at the end of my journey with the Evening MBA program – in a few weeks I’ll graduate and move on to the next chapter. I have met so many people through my classes but the lasting relationships that I will keep and feel secure in are those that I formed on my J-term trips. We spend so much time in a classroom getting to know people on the surface level but when you travel with people you tend to reach a deeper level which, to me, was so worth it. I walked into my first class of spring semester and saw a friend that I shared this experience with, and it felt like a recommitment to St. Thomas and this program but also to myself and why I chose this path. I will be grateful for these experiences long past my graduation.