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EMBAs gain firsthand international business experience in Vietnam

Apr 14, 2023

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Trip participants taking a bike tour around Phong Nam village, Vietnam

From Vespa tours around Ho Chi Minh City to exploring the Mekong Delta by boat, Ivey’s Executive MBA (EMBA) participants made the most of a week-long crash course in international business during their recent Discovery Expedition trip to Vietnam.

Ivey’s EMBA Discovery Expedition trips offer students a rare opportunity to immerse themselves in the cultural, political, and economic realities of some of the world's economic hot spots.

“Vietnam is a very relationship-based country, and to be successful in Vietnam, it is imperative to choose the right business partner,” says Jemi Onyejiaka, EMBA ’23 candidate and Vice President, Capital Markets, Strategy at BMO Capital Markets. “The economy is open and growing very fast, though it is still a great place to do business.”

Discovering emerging markets

Participants on the trip were given the task of choosing either a Canadian or Vietnamese company that could be integrated into the other country’s economy.

Jeff Armour, EMBA ’23 candidate and Chief Operating Officer of Western’s University Students' Council, is part of a team that is looking into how to grow rice in high-salinity conditions.

“In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where rice is grown, saltwater is intruding and making the land unsuitable for growth,” says Armour. “The result is possible food insecurity and is scary for Vietnam’s economy because, as the third largest rice producer in the world, they are counting on that revenue to build up their country.”

Armour and his team are collaborating with scientists in Canada who have formulated a seed-provider company and are now trying to integrate the company into Vietnam. While in Vietnam, the Ivey team connected with a domestic seed-provider company, working to initiate a plan for seed producers to adopt specialized seeds that will grow in high-salinity conditions. These seeds would then be offered to local Vietnamese farmers for use in their fields.

“Initially, going into the program, I would have thought there was no way we could discover a business or an opportunity that exists out there that could translate literally to the other side of the world,” says Armour. “I think that’s the biggest takeaway for me. I figured out how to hone the tools I already had and apply new thinking and new processes. An entrepreneurial spirit lives in everyone, and it’s a matter of lighting the fire.”

Immersed in the culture

Participants started their trip with an introduction to the history and culture of Vietnam. They took a Vespa tour around Ho Chi Minh City, explored Saigon on bikes, and, in smaller groups, went on to discover various parts of the city to experience the rich Vietnamese culture.

“The highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to gain new experiences with my classmates and build lifelong memories,” says Onyejiaka. “From tasting the various types of Vietnamese coffee, to bargaining at the famous Ben Thanh Market, to exploring Vietnamese cuisine, and enjoying the beautiful beaches in Vietnam. The friendships and memories built with my Ivey family will always be remembered.”

For Armour, the Vespa tour stood out as a trip highlight. “The locals drive on the streets the way we ski, and traffic lights are more of a suggestion,” he laughs. With approximately seven-million people driving on the roads in Ho Chi Minh City, Armour recalled the fear of simply crossing the street during his first couple of days. “Thankfully, we rode on the back of the Vespas with professional drivers and could see sights that would otherwise take several days if you weren’t on a Vespa exploring different areas.”

International business insights

Throughout the week, participants attended several meetings that had been set up to help them better understand the culture, economy, business landscape, and the social environment within Vietnam. Students had the opportunity to make in-person visits to several companies including, Heineken Vietnam, Tessellation, Michelin, TetraPak (food processing and packaging company), Logistik Unicorp (uniform manufacturer), Thien Phuoc Centre (residential centre for disabled and orphaned children), tech startup Futurify, Everest Education, St. John’s Packaging, and Saigon Children, a not-for-profit organization educating disadvantaged Vietnamese children.  

“One of the learnings from our international business course is how different businesses run from country to country and how cultural differences affect the way they approach business,” says Onyejiaka. “During our visit, we learned all the ways Vietnam and Canada differ in their business approaches – and this contrast really blew me away.”

Onyejiaka remarked that business in Vietnam is very relationship-based, “with a lot of businesses run on less formal contracts, trust, and commitment. In contrast, businesses in Canada are very formal and run on legal contracts and performance management tools.”

Putting learning into practice

Armour noted that throughout the EMBA program, he’s had exposure to professors and classmates who have taught him what critical conversations need to take place in order to understand the baseline of where a team stands within an industry.

“Learnings from the trip have created and distilled clarity for me concerning my role as a leader. I understand the questions I need to ask and recognize that I don’t need to know the answers to everything. The trip has allowed me, both while in Vietnam and back home in my job, to know how to conduct those critical conversations and establish what’s important and what isn’t.”

Onyejiaka left the experience with a newfound appreciation for resiliency, recognizing the resilient nature of the Vietnamese people. “You see that resilience flows through their culture, their business, their economy, and even their everyday lives,” she adds.

For Onyejiaka, resilience is crucial in one’s career, whether it involves embracing change, overcoming challenges, managing stress, sustaining motivation, or building relationships.

“I consider myself a very resilient person, and I apply resilience not only in my career but in my life as a whole,” she says. “My trip to Vietnam gave me firsthand experience as to how far the Vietnamese people have come in such a short time and how much they are focused on looking ahead to their future. It showed me a different perspective to life, and I plan to take my level of resilience several notches higher as a result.”

In recognition of their time in Vietnam, the Ivey EMBA cohort and faculty collected US$1,000 in donations for Saigon Children’s scholarship programs in support of the organization’s efforts to aid in the development of disadvantaged children and also purchased several donation items dropped off at the Thien Phuoc Centre during their visit. “Vietnam's people, culture, and positive outlook on life made an impression on us, and we are glad to leave a small footprint of appreciation,” says Onyejiaka.

EMBA Discovery Expedition Trip to Vietnam

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