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Virtual global internships offer MSc students unique cross-cultural insights

Aug 26, 2021

Virtual cooking session

A virtual cooking class was one of the cross-cultural experiences for Ivey students

The shared pandemic experience helped MSc students bridge the gap with global team members and have a unique cross-cultural immersion during virtual internships with companies in India, Vietnam, and Peru through the Ivey Global Lab course.

“The virtual format gave different insights into culture because everybody was at home and they were all in lockdown. It was a different way of connecting that gave unique insights as to how people are coping or managing through it,” said Anitha Ramanna, an Ivey Global Lab Executive-in-Residence who coaches the students through the internships.

Launched in 2013 as part of the MSc international business and CEMS Master in International Management (MIM) programs, the Global Lab helps students understand business in a cross-cultural context. A centrepiece of the course is an eight-week internship from May to July where students work on a business project for one of 22 companies in either India, Vietnam, or Peru. Two travel adventure consultants design and deliver the course, in partnership with Ivey faculty. Christopher Clark, HBA ’96, founder and CEO of Terraficionados; and Ravi Raj, co-founder and CEO of Authentica, identify companies and scope out projects and then coach and support the students. This year, due to COVID-19, the internships were virtual. But the student participants learned they could still have a cross-cultural experience without leaving their homes.

Cultural immersion

To prepare for the internships, the students had sessions on doing business in the various countries with cultural experts and executives. The course includes prep work from January to April and a week-long orientation workshop in early May. During their projects, the students also had virtual dance lessons and cooking classes to give them a lighter taste of the country’s culture.

“It didn’t make up for not being there in person, but it certainly bridged the gap in terms of giving the students a little bit more of a three-dimensional experience of the countries,” said Raj.

Even their project topics – ranging from clean energy to new products for a beer startup – enabled the students to gain cross-cultural insights. For instance, a project on mental health in India in rural settings required students to learn about the culture of the target market.

“In many cases, the students were exploring very local kinds of issues, such as how do you develop and roll out a training program for a target market of rural Indian medical students. You have to contextualize that as you’re doing the work,” said Clark. “As you do that, you’re learning a lot about the local customs and the culture – learnings that you wouldn’t otherwise get. You wouldn’t get it as a tourist or as a brief visitor.”

Managing the challenges of global virtual teams

Lynn Imai, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour who teaches the Ivey Global Lab course, said cultural differences are more subtle on virtual global teams so an added benefit was that the students learned to recognize and manage these differences. Imai is a cross-cultural psychologist and designs the cross-cultural curriculum and experiences in the MSc and CEMS-MIM programs.

“Typical virtual challenges include being isolated, becoming fragmented across different time zones, and communication issues. Sometimes there is too much information, but there is also a lack of shared context and background. The students develop skills in managing that and those skills are really critical for the world today,” said Imai. “We’re exposing the students to a very dynamic, fast-changing, ambiguous environment to truly push them out of their comfort zone. They gain a host of professional skills in an integrated way, and are also developing really important life skills.”

For MSc-CEMS MIM student Alina Droge, the differences were an asset. Her student team helped The Better India company grow its Instagram following and increase sales of its line of sustainable cleaning products, The Better Home.

“Despite our diverse backgrounds and varying interests, we were a really great team. My favourite part of the Ivey Global Lab experience was being able to leverage these differences to share interesting new perspectives and colourful ideas,” she said. “Seeing all our ideas come together to form our final project was truly an amazing feeling.”

Preparing for the future of work

Raj said working virtually with team members in different countries requires a shift in mindset.

“When the students are there in person, they are physically living in the same context as the clients. But if they are living in Toronto or London, every time they talk to the client, they have to switch their mindset,” he said. “They have to instantly transform back mentally to a Vietnamese, or an Indian, or a Peruvian context with the absence of the physical experience. It’s a lot harder to bridge the gap of where you are today and where you need to be, so that is a huge learning.”

Working virtually required the students to use new business communication platforms, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, which Raj said is great preparation for the future of work.

“It’s phenomenal how it’s preparing them for life in the future, which is one of the biggest upsides to doing it virtually. If they have to do it for work, they’ll be able to do it well,” he said.