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Not long after arriving in Kuala Lumpur in January 2015, Jennifer Henderson (MBA 2016) realized that her perception of what it would be like to work with a company there differed from the reality. Although she had read articles and cases on Malaysia and watched a video to get an understanding of the culture, she wasn’t fully prepared for how dynamic Kuala Lumpur has become. “It is an impressive city where people are very smart and business-driven, and where there is a strong focus on innovation,” she explains.

Henderson was one of 48 first-year MBA students who worked for a week in Malaysia’s capital as part of FIELD 2, the second module of the required course Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development. She and her five teammates helped Groupon Malaysia explore the potential for developing its own loyalty program. The company was already partnering with merchants in the BCARD, a lifestyle and brand-focused rewards program, but executives were uncertain about the card’s effectiveness. When the students interviewed customers about their use of the card, they discovered that people at first were often too polite to express their honest opinions. “It was drastically different from US culture,” explains Henderson. “I did not have an appreciation of that before being in-country and talking to consumers.”

The HBS team presented its findings to Groupon Malaysia’s top executives and recommended that the company take the loyalty program in house. Henderson says that even though she and her teammates did some introductory project work during the preceding semester, it was daunting to deliver a viable business plan in-country in just a week’s time. Still, adds Henderson, it was an enlightening experience. “Until you actually immerse yourself in a culture, you can’t really understand what people’s perspectives are. You have to have boots on the ground to fully capture what a customer wants.”

She also valued working under pressure in a team. “In my old job, leadership was defined as my boss. Working with peers, you learn that leadership is much more about the person who can keep everyone motivated and can make sure everyone’s opinions are heard,” says Henderson. “I don’t think I would have come to that realization if we had not been in this kind of situation.”

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