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Understanding Southeast Asia’s New Business Frontier

From cosmopolitan Bangkok and Singapore to the Sumatran rainforest, participants in the June 2017 HBS faculty immersion explored the diverse industries of Southeast Asia. “This region is something of a new frontier for many of us,” says Willy Shih, Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Management Practice, who cochaired the one-week immersion with Dennis Campbell, Dwight P. Robinson Jr. Professor of Business Administration. “We started with a very basic question: ‘What should we really know about Southeast Asia?’”

Emerging markets provide critical links in many global supply chains, particularly on the upstream supply end, so the group of 12 HBS faculty members and a colleague from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences visited companies that deal in sugar and bioenergy, rice, palm oil, tuna, paper, and data storage components. They also examined the gemstone and jewelry trade in Thailand, which produces 80 percent of the world’s jewelry, from high-end to mass-market, and met with villagers in Sumatra to discuss efforts to effect change in agricultural practices, such as reforestation. Fittingly, the group toured the PSA Singapore terminal, the world’s largest container transhipment hub.

The immersion culminated in a symposium in Singapore attended by local alumni and other business leaders. Several faculty members discussed their current research and, during panel discussions, addressed trade, globalization, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Following the immersion, Shih reflected on key learnings from the experience, which HBS’s Division of Research and Faculty Development and the Global Initiative’s Asia-Pacific Research Center’s Singapore office helped to coordinate: “It’s striking how knowledgeable and proactive the firms we visited were about sustainability; some of them are far ahead of firms in the developed world. They understand that it’s essential to their long-term survival.” Similarly, the group was impressed by regional investments in infrastructure. “In Sumatra, for example, the firm we visited was build ing roads and schools, because it’s in their interest to be able to get their products to market and have a qualified workforce,” he says.

photo by Natalie Keyssar

photo by Natalie Keyssar

Shih was equally enthusiastic about the exchange of ideas among faculty members across disciplines, noting the dynamic discussions that took place on topics ranging from supply chain management to social enterprises. Opportunities for faculty members to take a deep dive into the cultural, economic, political, and social forces shaping business in a region are invaluable, adds Shih, and often lead to case studies and global insight that enhance their conversations with students both in and outside the classroom.

 
“It’s striking how knowledgeable and proactive the firms we visited were about sustainability; some of them are far ahead of firms in the developed world.”
Willy Shih, Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Management Practice

“It’s striking how knowledgeable and proactive the firms we visited were about sustainability; some of them are far ahead of firms in the developed world.”
Willy Shih, Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Management Practice

Funding Infrastructure: Lessons from Africa

MBA students and project developer Sam Alemayehu (orange vest) tour the Reppie Waste-to-Energy project under construction near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — the first of its kind in Africa. (photo by John Macomber)

MBA students and project developer Sam Alemayehu (orange vest) tour the Reppie Waste-to-Energy project under construction near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — the first of its kind in Africa. (photo by John Macomber)

Those interested in understanding how to successfully build complicated infrastructure projects can gain insight by studying the world’s second-largest continent: Africa. “Policymakers, investors, and builders can learn from the African experience, where public-private partnerships and deployments of technologies are illuminating new ways to approach the task of funding infrastructure despite a scarcity of government funds,” says Senior Lecturer John Macomber.

Macomber, who spent three decades in the real estate and construction business prior to joining HBS in 2007, is committed to making real progress on some of the problems that face African nations. He designed an Immersive Field Course (IFC) focused on opportunities for private financing of public infrastructure projects in Africa. An important element of the course, he says, was to have students spend significant time working side by side with the local population. “Get out and look with your own eyes,” he instructed the 40 second-year MBA students who traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in January 2017.

Students enrolled in Africa: Building Cities divided into eight teams based on their interests and explored ideas for attracting private investment over the next decade in areas such as renewable and hydrocarbon power generation, sanitation, and telecommunications.

“We had access to high-level people,” says Sterling Cross (MBA 2017), who worked with a team on inner-city transportation. “They were willing to get their hands dirty with us and really listened to our ideas. It was a true immersion and a phenomenal experience.” At the end of the course, students posted reports on a web-based platform that can be used by their local partners and by future groups of HBS students who will address similar issues in the region.

“The people we work with in-country are deep experts in their fields, and our students bring work experience, academic training, and optimism to the challenges,” reports Macomber. Having written several case studies and drawing on the School’s Senior Executive Program–Africa, Macomber hopes, through his research, the students’ work, and collaboration with the School’s new research office in Johannesburg, to offer business solutions to some of the continent’s most difficult problems. The IFC will be offered for the third time this coming January.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2017, Section H

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