Final Reflections on Egypt GIP

It’s been about a week since our final projects were due for the Egypt GIP and now that I’ve had time to reflect about both the trip and the class, I’m even more excited to learn about the MENA region.

Our team meeting Dalia for the first time in Cairo!

One of the biggest takeaways I had from the group’s consulting project with a local start-up was how important the personal element is of a professional relationship in Egypt. It wasn’t really until we met our fantastic start-up founder, Dalia, face-to-face that we really got the full grasp of the company’s current state and the information exchange flowing.

Learning more about Dalia was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Outside of the formal programming, she and I had some time to socialize together and get to know each other. In any early stage start-up, the company is usually very connected to the founder and the founder likewise is very personally invested in the company. Through getting to know her, I was able to understand more about what “keeps her up at night”, what excites/energizes her, and where she might need some extra support – even if she doesn’t admit it / bravely takes on so much herself!

The group project was a great personal challenge for me. We recognized that Dalia could really use a CFO at her company. Even though none of us had a financial background, we had all developed the necessary skills in our MBA to help. So, I volunteered to tackle the market sizing and financial forecasting elements. It was exciting to put some of the skills I’d come to CBS to develop into practice for a real company. This made me even more proud of the finished project than ones I’d done in other classes that turned out well, but were definitely more within the realm of my pre-MBA work life.

On day 1 of my very first Chazen trip!

This trip was bittersweet as it was likely my last (of 4!) trips through the Chazen Institute. Since international business has always been an area of great interest to me, I did whatever I could to maximize the number of opportunities like these that I had while at CBS. Having now completed them, I have to admit that they formed some of the most memorable learning moments of my MBA experience and I will definitely be taking both the business and cultural lessons on with me after graduation. It is such a unique and special privilege we have as students to take a step out of our normal lives and get to walk in the shoes of our friends across the world in the business community, getting a snapshot into their lives.

Victoria Harman is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School.

The Intersection of Two Egypts: Ancient & Modern

Of course, no trip to Egypt is complete without some time immersing ourselves in the sites left behind by the Ancient Egyptians. While modern Egyptian culture is largely based around the country’s place in the North African community and the Arab world, we found that people do still look to Egypt’s incredible past with pride.

It wasn’t until our first meeting day with our Egyptian start-ups at American University of Cairo that my team asked our founder how she came up with the name “Esorus”. She said that there were two interpretations. First, the “e” highlights how the platform is bringing the furniture sourcing process online and “sorus” sounded like “source” or like “thesaurus”, reflecting the function of the image recognition-based search tool they’d produced. However, she also said that she got the idea for the name from “eye of Horus” – Horus being the Ancient Egyptian god who was protector of the pharaoh.

The final day of our trip consisted of a cultural visit to Upper Egypt, exploring the historic sites at Luxor and Karnak. This visit absolutely took my breath away. As a Classics major in college of course I heard about many of these sites. However, what most surprised me is how much these sites lived and breathed – as if they were created in my lifetime!

First, I was completely awestruck by the vibrancy of all of the colors. The materials the Ancient Egyptians used to paint the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and other sites has all managed to last to this day just as if they were just painted. Incredible! I was also fascinated by the volume of artifacts that could be found from that era across Egypt. I hope that makes this history more accessible to the masses while also providing insurance as time passes and artifacts get damaged or decay. Finally, the experience seeing surviving colossal structures up close was so immersive you could forget you were in modern times.

It’s interesting to thing about how all of this has an impact on modern Egypt, or specifically on business. On the more obvious note, it is a clear indication that Egypt will continue to thrive from businesses focused on the tourism industry – and it is inspiring to see how far along Giza has come with the building of its new Grand Egyptian Museum.

Where once Egypt was a country that led by example and came up with some of the most innovative advances in science and technology for millennia, it was exciting to see a modern Egypt that is once again a rising star in the Arab world, Middle East, and North Africa.

Victoria Harman is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School.

Reflections on Tunisia

Having been back for a while now, I have had some time to reflect on our trip to Tunisia. And, for me, the most meaningful part of the trip was being able to connect with the Tunisian teams that we had been working with for 6 weeks.

For half a semester leading up to the trip, my CBS team had spent 1 hour every week video chatting with the Tunisian team about the start up that they were trying to create, a match making platform called ARTAQI that connects farmers with day laborers. Each week we would exchange dozens of emails and talk about business models, marketing strategy, and projected financial performance of their business.

On our first full day in Tunisia, we had the opportunity to finally meet our teams. We spent the 3 hours in the working session continuing to fine tune their pitch and review business model, but there was something about finally all being in the same room that made the experience so special. After our working session, each CBS team was invited into the home of the one of the Tunisian students on their team. This was truly such a special experience. After having spoken of nothing but business and business plans for the previous 2 months, it was such a great opportunity to finally get to know the students we were working with – what did they do for fun? what shows did they watch? what was the MUST TRY Tunisian dish? why did they all apply for the Open Startup Tunisia program? what memes do they enjoy?

By the end of the night, we had a really great understanding of one another and several inside jokes. I personally came out of it having learned a few Tunisian phrases that I was able to impress company representatives with throughout the rest of the trip.

It was a chance to step back from the business element and really connect with these students from across the globe. It was a wonderful experience that will stick with me well beyond my time at CBS.

— Nimra Khan ’20

Consumer Goods Success in Emerging Markets: Egypt

As we’ve learned in the class, while there are many challenges to doing business in emerging markets, there are some very interesting success stories – and Egypt certainly has a few!

Given my Retail industry background, I was especially interested in the Consumer Goods & Textiles companies that we visited on the trip. I did my MBA summer internship at Levi’s, which has a factory in Egypt, so it was exciting for me to get to see first-hand some factories in the market.

Initially I was surprised to see that Procter & Gamble was on our itinerary, as it’s a big international corporation and I didn’t know what would be so special about visiting the Cairo office. To my surprise, the Cairo Plant meeting was actually very fascinating. The Plant had a really amazing turnaround story. In November 2016 there was a 120% currency devaluation in Egypt and P&G reports everything in USD. So, management needed to implement a plan just to survive in this crisis market. They did a remarkable job and today business at the Cairo Plant is absolutely thriving! This was a truly inspirational presentation to kick off our trip.

The most interesting visit for me was Oriental Weavers. The sheer scale of their operations is incredible! They produce 250,000 square meters of carpets and other woven home goods every day and are the biggest manufacture of woven carpets globally. I was really intrigued by this business because it seemed like the native Egyptian company we visited that had achieved the largest international scale, exporting to 130 countries.

They were also really relatable because one of their largest customer bases is in the USA and they even have an office outside Atlanta, GA. I knew I recognized some of their designs from US retail stores like HomeGoods. Like the P+G factory visit, what surprised me was how much of the manufacturing process is automated. These Egyptian factories are large scale and command large, specialized machines that can produce products quickly, with minimal error, and at great volumes. I was also impressed with their efforts to keep the work environments safe, clean, and eco-friendly.

Victoria Harman is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School.

When Dealing With the Government, Filipino Businesses Have to Tread Lightly

Senator Koko Pimentel welcomed us to the Philippines with a joke. When he found out that we were from Columbia Business School, he smiled and said that he personally knows nothing about business and economics, but perhaps we can help him during our meeting. We all laughed. Sen. Pimentel is one of the most powerful politicians in the Philippines, the leader of the ruling party PDP-Laban and a political ally of President Rodrigo Duterte. But as Sen. Pimentel answered our questions it was clear he wasn’t really joking.

Senator Pimentel had plenty of insight into political corruption, party politics, and the war on drugs, but when it came to economic development in the country, the Senator essentially shrugged. When we asked about how to create more bank accounts for the country’s poor, he said he thought there was already a program somewhere in the central bank. We we asked his plan to get more foreign investment in the Philippines, he said he didn’t see why foreign corporations aren’t satisfied with a minority 40% stake in Filipino ventures. You have to understand, he said, that in Philippines political parties compete on how to battle corruption, not on sophisticated tax and economic plans.

This lack of a consistent government policy on the country’s economy came up in our official meetings with Filipino corporations and in private conversations. No business leader directly criticized President Duterte or any politician by name, but the frustration was evident. In order to do anything big and meaningful in the Philippines you have to deal with the government, but such deals hold enormous risks. On our last day in the country, President Duterte threatened to throw executives from private water companies in jail “in one night” if they refused to accept new contracts from the government. He said the executives would rot there for 30 years.

MARCOSIAN THREATS. President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he speaks during the thanksgiving gathering of The Fraternal Order of Eagles (TFOE) held at the SMX Convention Center in Davao City on January 17, 2020. Photo by Malacañang

Duterte and the water companies have been fighting over contracts for months, with Duterte threatening them not just with jail time but with a full takeover of the companies. Local news site, the Rappler, quoted Duterte:

“But I tell you, you better sign the contract – this is good for the Filipino people. You do not sign it, I take over your operations sa water distribution. I will nationalize the water in my country,” the President said, earning him applause from the crowd.

Earlier in the week, we met with the CEO of the Ayala Corporation, Jaime Augusto Zóbel de Ayala (he goes by JAZA). Although he was not personally named by Duterte, the Ayala Corporation owns Manila Water, one of the concessionaires threatened by the President. JAZA tiptoed around the issue when he was discussing future investments of the company.

When I asked if it was worth the risk to make deals with government, JAZA said that in order to fulfill the vision of the Ayala Corporation, they had no choice. Ayala is a large land-owner and developer, a banking company and a builder of infrastructure, all lines of business that have massive government involvement and regulation. JAZA said that in order to do pursue big projects to help the Philippines, you have to be comfortable working with government agencies. As an example, he cited a recent private consortium the company put together to work with the government to redevelop the Manila Airport.

For some businesses we met with, the clear answer to dealing with the government is to not wait for politicians to solve problems. We spent time with a start-up called Mynt, which makes a popular Filipino mobile-banking app called GCash. The Philippines lacks a lot of the financial infrastructure to make mobile payments and loans easy, so Mynt went ahead and built their own.

Mynt CEO Anthony Thomas told us that the Philippines doesn’t have a national credit scoring system like the United States and so the company had to develop their own proprietary credit score for their customers in order to offer loans and credit services. Likewise, while the Philippines government is in the process of trying to implement a national ID system, Mynt went ahead on its own and developed a way for its customers to verify their identity using the app and forms of local ID. Start-ups need to move faster than governments ever can.

The Duterte government does seem to know it has room for improvement in its relationship to Filipino businesses. It recently created an Anti-Red Tape Authority and the country rose in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report, from 125th to 95th place in the world. The Philippines score improved in the areas of starting a business and paying taxes, but the report says that the country’s entrepreneurs still struggle with getting credit and enforcing contracts.

Robert Smith is a 2020 MBA candidate at Columbia Business School

Prepping for Egypt GIP!

Since I was a Classics major in undergrad and took classes like Science & Technology in Ancient Egypt, admittedly I am most excited to geek out on all the cool historical sites there are to see on the trip.

However, what I think will be especially interesting is to see how this ancient world melds together with modern Egypt, a business hub in the Middle East and key player in the Arab world. While the history is fascinating, all that is in the past. It will be exciting to see how the people of Egypt are paving their way for the future!

This GIP (Global Immersion Program) will be my first trip to the African continent and third trip to an Arab country – the other two were to the UAE, so quite different. I am excited to see how African and Middle Eastern culture blend together, both in and outside of the office.

Because GIPs include a half-semester course prior to travel, we have been given some time to learn about the country through some great lectures organized by our professor, Marco Viola. We had guest speakers with first-hand experience doing business in the country. We’ve also had the opportunity to work in small groups on various consulting projects for start-ups taking part in the American University of Cairo accelerator program.

I cannot wait to meet my start-up, Esorus. It is a female-founded company headed up by Dalia Laz, a former architect. The company is developing an online platform to connect furniture and fixtures manufacturers with interior designers, contractors, and FF&E buyers. In Egypt, I understand that personal relationships and face-to-face contact are very important in business. So, I think our project will be further enhanced by this incredible opportunity we are having to travel to the market and meet our Egyptian teams!

I was also very excited to hear that our company visits will be a mixture of industries as well as a mixture of corporate offices and facilities/factory visits. We will even be visiting the Egyptian Refinery Company, one of the companies from our case readings. I look forward to the amazing agenda planned!

Victoria Harman is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School.

Reflections on India

I absolutely cannot believe it’s been two weeks since we completed our trip to India – what a whirlwind! I’ve just settled into my flat in London, about to start the MBA Exchange program at London Business School, delighted to have some mementos from this memorable trip to decorate my room. All of the experiences are something I will not soon forget!

While the company visits I mentioned earlier were all outstanding, I have to say that our trip organizers did a superb job in planning the cultural activities, which brought context to our business discussions and made us feel really immersed in local life. Everything from seeing key sights like the Taj Mahal to trekking up a mountainside on an elephant’s back to see a historic fort to sampling regional cuisine and seeing arts performance in each city we went, made the experience outstanding and truly memorable!

One of the best parts of the trip was actually getting to know my fellow classmates better. Our group really gelled and it was exciting to see how the variety of activities we had on the trip brought everyone closer together. The long bus ride chats, rickshaw races, Mohit’s Bollywood dance lessons, and the awesome superlatives handed out to everyone at the end thoroughly convinced me that each member of the group would pass the “elevator test”! This was a truly amazing & spirited bunch and I think we all left the trip feeling like we’d made a wonderful group of new friends.

In addition to the warmth of our group, we also experienced the true sense of hospitality that is so deeply ingrained in Indian culture. At every hotel and office we visited, like in the photo above in Agra, we were greeted in the kindest way which made our stay that much smoother.

By the end of this trip, not only did I gain a deep appreciation of the place where so many of my CBS classmates and friends grew up, but also an eagerness and excitement around the future of business in India. I got to see many sides to the country through our programming which completely broke apart any preconceived notions I may have had going in. Overall, I am eager to see what the next few years will bring for India’s economy and hope I will have the opportunity in the future to work on business projects related to the market. This trip was a huge learning experience for me and some of the most fun I’ve had at CBS! I am so grateful I had the opportunity to attend and hope to make it back to India again soon.

Victoria Harman is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School.