UC Irvine Sends MBAs to Cuba

Collaborative programs promote greater understanding between Cuba and U.S. businesses.
UC Irvine Sends MBAs to Cuba
INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS PROFESSORS from the Center for Global Leadership (CGL) at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, and the Centro de Estudios de Técnicas de Dirección (CETED) at the University of Havana (UH) in Cuba recently collaborated to develop programs that enhance student understanding of U.S. and Cuban business cultures. The first, held in March, taught 40 Cubans how to negotiate effectively with Americans and other potential trading partners. William Hernandez Requejo and John Graham of CGL and Alexis Codina Jiménez and Rafael Montejo of CETED created the negotiation workshop to highlight the differences between communication styles and economic thinking in Cuba and America.

For example, “Cubans interrupt one another frequently,” says Hernandez, who also serves on the United Nations’ Forum on Foreign Investments in Cuba. “Interruptions are off-putting to Americans and limit the information that can be gathered by Cuban negotiators.” In the workshop, Cubans learn to ask questions and wait patiently for responses. Likewise, America’s emphasis on capitalism often conflicts with Cuba’s emphasis on collectivism. The workshop aims to solve communication and negotiation problems between the two mindsets.

For the second program, held in April, Hernandez and Graham took 30 Merage MBA students to Havana for a one-week residential course, in collaboration with the UH’s Centro de Investigaciones de Economía Internacional. The course covered different aspects of Cuban business, including food production, tourism, healthcare, and infrastructure development. The students toured several companies, including privately owned restaurants, an organic farm, and a medical clinic. They also visited the office of a primary care doctor who faces challenges ranging from managing chronic conditions such as diabetes to monitoring the spread of the Zika virus.

Merage and UH students developed business plans for several companies they visited, including a computer hardware distribution center and a sugar production operation, both state-run, and an entrepreneurial 3D printing firm and a spa, both privately owned. After returning to California, the U.S. students continued to work with UH students for two months as part of virtual teams.

The professors have been inspired to develop projects such as these by the “Peace Through Commerce” initiative, says Graham. The initiative was spearheaded in 2006 by Carolyn Woo, former dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana, and promoted by AACSB International. Last December, the university sponsored a summit on the risks and opportunities businesses

face if they plan to enter the Cuban market. Hernandez and Graham plan to travel to UH again this year—this time to hold an executive education workshop to help American and Cuban managers develop their collaboration skills. They also are working with faculty at UH and the University of Aarhus in Denmark to design experiential learning projects in which MBA and engineering students develop renewable energy projects in Cuba. “After more than a half century of commercial silence between our two countries, the doors of cooperation are now beginning to creak open. During those 50 years we have forgotten how to
interact in positive and creative ways,” Graham says. “But since 2009, we have witnessed a continual growth of interest in Cuba and in the U.S. in collaborative work.” President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. would re-establish dipolomatic relations with Cuba, he adds, “was a tipping point.”