In February 2012, a cohort of 30 students from Brandeis International Business School boarded a plane in Boston for a six-hour flight spanning a world of political and economic differences. As they touched down at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, for a week of “business education diplomacy,” the students embarked on an effort to forge ties through the school’s global business relationships. The students we brought were participants in the Hassenfeld Overseas Fellows program on a mission to better understand the changing economic tides in Cuba by demystifying the vestiges of the Cold War and engaging with their Cuban peers.
While in Cuba, we exchanged ideas with faculty members of the University of Havana economics department and took a front-row seat to observe an economy on the brink of a new era of openness. We also met with Cuban MBA candidates and heard from them about their hopes for the day when such interactions would no longer be unusual.
Much has changed in the past three years, and today the seeds of Cuba’s economic change are beginning to sprout as the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations begins. For academic institutions in the U.S., particularly business schools willing to make the first move, the opportunity exists to have a profound impact on the next stage of U.S.-Cuba economic relations.
This is more than just an opportunity—it is a strategic imperative for business schools to make this move. Opening Cuba’s borders to trade and investment is the best way to ensure Cuba prospers. Engaging with the U.S. will also guarantee that Cuba is not destabilized by outside geopolitical powers eager to gain a toehold on the island.
"We must continue to encourage the government to open its political system further and to display the highest standards of respect for human rights."
Recent developments in Cuba show promise, and we must continue to encourage the government to open its political system further and to display the highest standards of respect for human rights. Meanwhile, we simply cannot afford to miss the opportunity to engage economically and commercially. The price of inaction is too great. Taking the following actions will allow the business school community to do its part to usher in a new age of economic engagement between the United States and Cuba—and is a valuable framework that can be applied beyond Cuba to any country across the world that has had limited or no engagement with U.S. business schools.
- Promote Skills Development with Cuban Entrepreneurs. As Cuba’s economy continues to grow, faculty and students of U.S. business schools should engage in dynamic business education diplomacy missions to Cuba. They will bring the expertise of the U.S. innovation economy to Cuban entrepreneurs and owners of small- and medium-sized businesses. These leaders are the future of the Cuban economy and stand to benefit greatly from the skills training that could be built into business education diplomacy missions through seminars, workshops, and networking.
- Bring Cuban Professors to the U.S. Business schools should use the improved relations with Cuba as an opportunity to invite Cuban economics, business, and finance professors to the United States. These educators could spend a semester as visiting professors on our campuses and pair with American counterparts to build their intellectual capacity on topics such as global financial markets and human resource management policy. In return, Cuban faculty members would provide a unique perspective to American students on the current state of the transitioning Cuban economy and the geopolitics of the Latin American economy. Professors would return to Cuba better prepared to lead courses and build curriculum on these topics.
- Engage in Joint Research Initiatives on Economic Policy. Business schools and their faculty can lend their voices to thought leadership in Cuba relative to future Cuban economic policy direction from an academic, non-political perspective. Business schools that work at the intersection of economic policy and finance can and should collaborate with their counterparts in Cuba to research economic development pathways and the future role of foreign investment. Also important is lending perspective to the creation of policies that address the challenges associated with transitioning to a more open economy, including stemming income inequality and the creation and support of a robust social safety net.
- Encourage Cuban Student Enrollment in U.S. Business Schools. Perhaps most important is that American business schools work with Cuban undergraduate institutions to encourage the next generation of Cuba’s business leaders to pursue graduate business programs in the U.S. The opportunity for American students to work side by side with Cuban classmates will have a profound effect and provide the truly global business education enjoyed by international students who study at U.S. business schools. These students will return to Cuba with new relationships and a broader understanding of Cuba’s role and value in the global economy.
This is our greatest challenge, as well. The barriers to entry for Cuban students are many—including the cost of higher education in the U.S., language barriers, and the lack of awareness about graduate business education in Cuba. U.S. business schools must work that much harder through aggressive promotion and scholarships to successfully attract and enroll qualified Cuban students.
By making these investments now, we will see tremendous rewards in the future of U.S.-Cuba relations and emphasize the real and lasting impact that our business schools can make across the globe.
Bruce R. Magid is the dean of Brandeis International Business School in Waltham, Massachusetts, as well as the Martin and Ahuva Gross Chair in Financial Markets and Institutions. Previously, he held positions as dean of the College of Business and founding dean of the Lucas Graduate School of Business at San José State University, executive director of Michigan State University’s online education unit, and senior executive of Bank America.
Alan Hassenfeld is the retired chairman and CEO of Hasbro and co-chairman of the Board of Overseers at Brandeis International Business School. He also is the chairman of Hassenfeld Family Initiatives, a nonprofit focused on the safety of children’s products and women’s empowerment in developing countries; it also promotes economic and educational initiatives in the state of Rhode Island.