Business students serve as consultants for international companies

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Global experience can make or break a job candidate’s chances.

“Businesses expect students to have some international exposure,” said Nanda Rangan, Ph.D., associate dean for international and strategic initiatives in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. “That international exposure for the students is very important because many businesses now work on teams. And those are global teams.

“We want to provide that exposure for students. It makes them unique. They can show they have this extra add-on.”

To give students that opportunity, the School of Business implemented the International Consulting Program as a pilot project in 2013 with support from the Global Education Office's International Strategic Initiative Award (now the Quest Global Impact Award). The intense seven-week summer program sends students abroad to work as business consultants for international companies. It proved so successful that it officially launched as a full-fledged course this summer.  

The three-part class involves language training, social skills, greetings and managing the culture and economy of the host country. The first four-week sequence is spent in Richmond, where the students receive formal classroom training while consulting with a Richmond-based client. The second sequence takes place overseas with live consulting engagements over two weeks.  

“These are real businesses with real problems,” said Greg Waller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. “The students aren’t asking [the clients] questions and learning from them; they’re actually learning from our students. So our students are the ones that are doing the consulting work and that have the brain power.”

VCU sends 10 to 15 students to each of its partnership universities, which also provide students who work as teams on consulting contracts arranged by the host university. The businesses range from small to large and each have a unique problem that they need solved. Two VCU faculty members accompany the students at each site, which this year were Athens, Prague, Cypress and Cordoba. Clients ranged from a winery and a family-run restaurant to PepsiCo and EuroJet.

“So the idea is the student goes there, meets them, and they lay out the problem for the students,” Rangan said. Sometimes, what the business officials think is the problem is not a problem at all, he said, but they cannot clearly articulate the actual problem. In those cases, the students must diagnose the real problem. Once that is clear, they come up with how they’re going to solve it, and what the deliverables will be.

But the students have zero time to prepare beforehand. They only learn of their client once the airplane wheels have touched down in their host city.

“We drop them cold,” Waller said. “The students arrive in the country and they are confused. They’re in a new place, in a country where they may not speak the language, around people that they don’t know. For many of them it’s the first time they ever traveled. So, they arrive in the country, and now all of a sudden they have to get their bearings about their neighborhood and their surroundings and everything else.”

An unexpected challenge for the digital native students is losing their immediate access to one of their most reliable lifelines – the cellphone.

We got lost a lot, but sometimes that's part of the fun of traveling.

“One of the other big challenges of traveling abroad is the lack of data connection for our smartphones,” said Katy Flick, a senior marketing student. “Every time you want to message someone or find a restaurant, you have to find a Wi-Fi spot first. We got lost a lot, but sometimes that's part of the fun of traveling.”

Flick traveled to the Czech Republic, where she worked with two VCU students and one student from the Anglo-American University in Prague on a consulting problem for EuroJet that  involved recommendations on variables for a new differentiated pricing strategy.

“Two weeks goes by really fast when you're working on a consulting project for a company you knew nothing about prior to flying over,” Flick said. “Everyone wanted to work hard to impress their clients, but we also wanted to enjoy all that Prague had to offer. Sometimes you would have to work on your project when other people from the trip were doing something really cool like visiting the castle.”

It was also a challenge bringing together four individuals with different work styles and learning backgrounds, she said. While disagreements arose, student participants managed to compromise and create a project that everyone was happy with.

“The evolution at first is basic survival stuff,” Waller said. “Then they meet their clients and you can see how they struggle with defining the problem, with getting that into some written form that they can pass on to their client for approval. The first week they’re struggling, trying to come up with solutions for the problem.”

Going into the second week, Waller said, the teams start preparing for their final presentations.

“Even as late as the middle of the second week, you can see that the projects are rough and they’re working hard to shape it up and to make it presentable. By the time they go on stage, for their final presentation, the transformation from where they started to what they present is just astounding.”

Katie Gilstrap, assistant professor of marketing, likens the process to running a marathon.

“It’s wonderful to see them before and at the end,” she said. “We meet with them every day, so we get updates. Projects never go too far and so we’re working with them every day, to make sure they’re headed in the right direction.”

Waller has received feedback from former students that this component on their resumes was the thing that prospective employers wanted to talk about the most. It was the focus of many of their interviews.  Waller understands why.

“It’s experiential learning,” Waller said. “It’s global. And, as opposed to bringing people here, we actually are sending our students out to the world, which I think is very important.”

It’s experiential learning. It’s global. And, as opposed to bringing people here, we actually are sending our students out to the world...

For students such as Flick, the greatest takeaway from the course was the experience of putting together a consulting project and presenting it to the client in such a tight timeline.

“It really made the team have to focus and work together in order to create a cohesive recommendation,” she said. “The excitement of working with a real client energized us to create a great project in a high-pressure environment.”

For the final week of the course, the students return to Richmond and write a reflection paper on their experiences --  experiences that Rangan noted provide more benefits than merely making the students more marketable.

“This takes you to a new environment, where you’re completely on your own in terms of figuring out what it is,” he said. “I think it not only gives them a good experience in terms of learning, but also I think it does something to their self-esteem. It opens their windows to other experiences, to learn and appreciate other cultures, appreciate other economies. That’s what the whole idea is.”


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