UAE #5: Land of tolerance, financial growth, and visionaries

I still can’t believe that our trip has come to an end. As my circadian rhythm slowly but surely reverts back to eastern daylight savings time, I am recalling my experiences fondly and appreciatively. When I signed up for this Chazen trip to the United Arab Emirates, I certainly felt that I was operating “outside my comfort zone,” and acting on the advice that alumni have given me about “taking a step into the unknown.” I thought that it would broaden my horizons to travel to the Middle East, a region of the world that I had never before visited.

Certainly I learned a lot during my trip and saw how the other half of the earth lives, but I was surprised to realize how similar the UAE is to the USA, despite its differences in geography, founding stories an demographic makeup. Both the emirates in which we stayed (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) had a diverse population – nationally, ethnically, and in perspectives. But nonetheless, in a region of the world that has seen its share of conflict, the UAE remains a beacon of civility and tolerance.  Below are some of the lessons and highlights from the trip. Needless to say, I will definitely be returning to visit again in the future.

Experiencing Arab hospitality across the spectrum

The UAE is an easy place to visit, because one cannot help but feel welcome. Our entrance to any hotel or business meeting was greeted with the traditional welcome offering of dates and coffee (especially needed on those first few days). Our flight and hotel experiences were out of the world. The flight attendants were well trained to accommodate flyers from all parts of the world and spoke multiple languages. The Sofitel had breakfast spreads that offered a mix of traditional American breakfast meats, curries and middle eastern dishes, as well as fresh fruit, all kinds of coffees and teas. There was even a Nutella station, which was a game change, personally.

The UAE, particularly Dubai, aims to be a hub of international logistics as well as a tourist destination. It is ideally located for that, uniquely at the hinge of east meets west. However, I think it extends father than that.  Hospitality is inherent in how the people of the Emirates treat one another and their foreign visitors. On our 9-day trip, we were hosted by two CBS alum – Haig ’17 and Kush ‘16. They invited us into their businesses and homes, provided such a lovely dining and networking experience, and made sure that we got the best seat in the house at Music Hall, a truly unique variety show experience on the Palm Jumeirah.

Enjoying live performances in a variety of languages at Music Hall on the Palm Jumeirah.
Skirt dancing on a desert safari!

It is good to know friends in the UAE!


Learning about Financial Priorities

The UAE was a great place to learn and discuss macroeconomics, because it is a country which has grown up so quickly and in such a measured and intentional way. They knew from the beginning that they must develop an economy that was not just reliant on oil, which is something which will deplete over time and has historically shown great volatility. As a result, they invested the wealth to be had from the petrochemicals business back into the infrastructure of the UAE and into other tangible and financial assets that would provide a more diversified and stable source of sustained returns. It is through this deliberateness that cities of glass towers emerged from desert sands and palm huts.

On our first day, we visited Heritage Village, which is a recreation the old Abu Dhabi, before the massive development of the past 4 decades. It’s really striking to see the juxtaposition of the palm frond huts against the backdrop of tall glass buildings.

Dubai didn’t stop there, however. It went a step further to develop its tourism and logistics industries to provide entertainment to the world and a meeting hub between the east and west. This is evidenced by the development of its airline (Emirates), its luxury real estate and manmade islands, and even the surreal shopping experience that is the Dubai Mall – which has its own aquarium. Nothing accentuates a trip to Chanel like a shark in the wall.

Anastacia ’19 enjoying first class seating during our tour of the Emirates training facility.
Scaled model of the Palm Jumeirah resort island.
CBS at the very center of Atlantis.

Building around a harsh environment

Visiting in March, we experienced the Emirates in the balmy range of 65F – 80F, a welcome change from the blizzard-stricken Manhattan winter. But we heard enough from the locals to know that it is … well, a real scorcher. In order to develop into modernity, the scorching heat and arid climate of the Middle Eastern desert needed to be overcome. The UAE has done exactly that. Sky bridges and underground walkways afforded air conditioned commutes. Water, of course, is a scarcity with the UAE’s lack of rivers. So it developed desalination plants to convert the ample ocean water into something that is potable and even delicious for its populace and visitors. Building such prodigious cities out of the thirsty stand is truly a testament of human ingenuity in construction.

Governing vision

UAE would not be where it is had it not had such visionary leaders who 1) acknowledged the finite nature of their natural resource assets (which are coveted globally), 2) accepted the need to move into more enduring businesses utilizing existing wealth, and 3) developed ways to do so through funding of specialized vehicles to build tourism and other services. The UAE is still a young nation, with just a generation of succession since its own founding fathers laid down the foundation for building this federation of distinct yet united emirates. It will be interesting to see the future work that the next generation of leaders will do in economic development.

I can’t wait to see where the UAE is next time I visit!

– Shelley Han ’18

Hong Kong and Shanghai – the Real Estate Run-Down

Less than 24 hours after landing back in New York, half of the members of our real estate trek settled into Camille Douglas’s Global Real Estate Investment class. Despite some jetlag, our group of Chazen travelers were excited to share what we had learned in Hong Kong and Shanghai and have a newfound perspective and appreciation for real estate in China.

With 15 company visits and site tours, our group was exposed to all types of real estate firms from developers, real estate private equity firms, and family owner-operators to architects, brokers, hospitality companies, and public transportation operators. After a very full week, a few key themes became clear to us.

The office market moves fast. Cities see tens of millions of square feet being added to the office inventory over a couple of years (compared to just a few million square feet). The market changes so quickly that landlords don’t want to be locked into leases longer than three years and the large safe anchor tenants that are so coveted in the US, are passed over in China in favor of smaller tenants with limited power over the landlord.

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Touring HKRI Taikoo Hui Center with Swire

Government intervention is a looming force in Chinese real estate. We heard about how when government initiatives are aligned with your business, you can expedite the zoning process (and perhaps also other regulations) to build a multi-family building in six months. On a much larger scale is the “One Belt and One Road” initiative, a modern-day Silk Road network of railways, roads, pipelines and utility grids that link China to Central, West and South Asia. Announced by Xi Jinping in 2013, One Belt and One Road is a massive undertaking that is a driving force behind all kinds of development with a strong focus in Central China.

Of course, for many others, the looming presence of an intervening government can be challenging and frustrating. This sentiment was indicated implicitly and explicitly by both foreign and local firms.

By the end of the week, we began to fully appreciate the sheer size of the country. Although population growth in China is lower than the US growth rate, the city is rapidly urbanizing with the equivalent of the population of New York City moving to Chinese cities every year. This provides strong tailwinds for urban growth and we learned from a number of companies about how they are addressing the housing needs of the growing population.

Our trip to China was a whirlwind learning opportunity and provided great insights to an exciting market. Many thanks to the student organizers, the Chazen Institute, our faculty and Paul Milstein Center sponsors Leanne Lachman and Kristin Svenningsen, all of the companies that met with us, and all of the students who joined the trip.


Meeting with Fosun Property in Shanghai

– Robin Lore ’19

¡España: Tapas y Fútbol!

Throughout our time in Spain, there was no shortage of two things: Tapas and Fútbol (aka soccer).

Wyatt Marshall ’19 at Bernabéu

Each and every meal included some form of Tapas. One of our favorite cultural experiences in Spain was the way in which we ate.  The food was nothing short of amazing but the experience was what really made it. We truly enjoyed our meals and that’s because people really like to take their time when they eat and appreciate each other’s company and conversation. This is not to say service was slow, because it wasn’t. We had lots of smaller dishes which seemed like never-ending dishes at times… and our palette was not disappointed to say the least.

Our most notable meal was at El Bohío, just outside of beautiful Toledo, Spain. Course after course came in beautifully crafted flatware, specific to the dish. We even got to meet with the chef, Pepe Rodruíguez Rey, who is famous in Spain for his popularity on MasterChef. He loved hosting a group of business school students and even wore the CBS flag as a cape after we finished eating.


Michelin Star Restaraunt with Chef Rey. Photo by Patrick Sofen


From an athletic perspective, we had the chance to attend an Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid soccer game along with an exclusive tour of the world-renowned Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, home of Real Madrid. The stadiums were filled with electric atmospheres and both resulted in lots of goals and wins for the home team (including a 4 goal hat-trick from Christiano Ronaldo!). It was the first European soccer game for most of us so the intensity and remarkable fan support were amazing!

-Patrick Sofen ’19-

Reflections from Rwanda

Country with the highest share of female parliamentarians in the world, at 61%.  Global Gender Gay 2017’s #1 place to be a woman in East Africa, and #4 globally.  These are some of the accolades proudly shared with us by the Rwanda Development Board.

“If you want to achieve middle income status, private sector growth needs to be the focus on all that you do”

…said the Rwanda Development Board (RDB)  Achieving a private-sector led economy is at the core of RDB’s vision and strategic plan.   One such way they are executing on this mission are Special Economic Zones, which are “one-stop-shops” for enterprises collocating industrial and commercial land, reliable energy sources, transportation links, market access, and administrative bodies.  Coupled with favorable private business incentives, such as accelerated depreciation to address capital-intensive starting periods without revenue, the SEZ aim to create skills in off-farm jobs and encourage knowledge transfer to boost Rwanda’s overall economic activities.


Later that day, our group visited three different production facilities within the Special Economic Zone – C&H (garments), Sahashra (LED lights), and a paper products factory.  For example, we observed clothing assembly lines, bringing concepts that we learn in Prof. Singh’s Operations Strategy course to action, when individuals pass the same article of clothing down the line after performing the same task, such as sewing on a specific button on a construction vest.  Through specialization, workers learn skills while increasing productivity with the words “JOB CREATION, EXPORT GENERATION” hanging on a banner along the walls.  Speaking of which, businesses in Africa must still balance the tradeoffs between job creation and automation, and these priorities were not always crystal clear among the companies we visited.

In the evening, we enjoyed some of Kigali’s vibrant art scene at the Inema Arts Center, which is a collective of Rwanda creative artists started by brothers Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza.  On Thursdays, they have a great happy hour event including cocktails, live DJ & music, and mingling with the artists themselves.  At the gallery, we noticed that Emmanuel is married to Lauren Russell Nkuranga, who visited our hotel this very morning to talk about the food distribution company that she founded in Rwanda, Get It.  Get It is a leading procurement and food distribution company, supplying many of the food safe fruits, vegetables, and dried goods to hotels, including the Marriot where we stayed! She shared how as a foreign business owner, she appreciates her opportunity to have conversations more easily.

Our TA, Gladys, at Inema Arts Centre!

Perhaps one of my highlights of the trip was a trip next day to Sorwathe Tea Farm!  Producing approximately 12% of Rwanda’s tea, our group met the parents of one of my clustermates, Tim Stenovec, whose extended family still direct the farm.  We toured the factories and learned about the tea production process, from picking the tea leaves in the fields, to sorting, dehydrating, fermentation, chopping, drying, packing, and shipping – it was so fascinating! I learned that black tea, green tea, and white tea all can come from the same leaf, and it is through different processes such as fermentation that different varieties are created! In the sun, at the guesthouse, we enjoyed a lovely lunch (and some outdoor tennis!) hosted by the Stenovec family.



Cluster E’18 with our clustermate’s family, the Stenovecs (thanks again for hosting!)
Learning about the different grades of black tea

To wrap up the trip, many of us could not visit Rwanda without a trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.  Before arriving in Rwanda, our Kenyan tour guide advised us not to bring up three topics in Rwanda: tribes, sports, or politics.  After a heavy yet informative self-guided experience at the Memorial detailing the tragic events, we walked away understanding our guide’s away.  It is clear that while many will always remember and grieve, they also move forward with the believe that they are unified ‘Rwandans’ who are progressing forward for peace and prosperity.

We all observed a moment of silence at the mass burial sites, Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre


“Car Guys” vs. The Disruptors: Germany Week in Review


CBS students at BMW Welt planning next “big idea”

Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard ‘88 is a proud man. He’s fit, maybe 5′ 11″ tall, his sharp chiseled facial features and touch of grey hair complement a finely tailored navy suit with a silver pocket square. When he speaks, he is assertive and charismatic, a commanding voice easily fills a room of 30 MBA students. Most importantly, Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard is a “car guy”.

Bernhard was the former Chief Executive Officer of Mercedes-AMG GmbH and would later hold various positions, including being a member of the board of management of Daimler AG, before retiring in 2017. Bernhard embodies the classic German ethos of discipline, hard work, first-one-in-last-one-out, and the “no bullshit, do-it-yourself” mentality. As an executive, he was not afraid to get his hands dirty by often taking monthly shifts on the Mercedes manufacturing line. “Know your business,” he tells us with a serious look, but slight smile. He continues to talk about German-engineering excellence and how hyper focus on attention to quality and improvement is unmatched. As he speaks to us, he is calm and composed…that is, until the topic of Tesla comes up.

“You need to be really good at manufacturing…they’re not. They’re just an IT company…that moved into auto…and they talk about the hell of manufacturing…that’s what it is! That’s what it takes to get the job done!  And for them it’s hell and for us it’s art! For hundreds of years we have been honing that art!” he states with just the slightest hint of red in his face. The subtext of his words are more powerful than the literal criticism. This wasn’t just about Tesla versus Mercedes, massive disruption in the auto industry, or even Elon Musk’s hubris…it was about something much deeper…the German identity.

Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard – Photo by Daimler AG on Flickr

Bob Dylan famously writes, “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown…you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin.” While not as profoundly German as Nena’s 99 Luftballoons, Dylan’s quote encapsulates the point of contention at the heart of the German cultural and business identity as we approach the end of a decade. Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard’s career represents what has made the German auto industry so successful in the past, a commitment to excellence through laser-focus on the singular objective of car quality. But in a rapidly changing automotive and technology landscape, does putting on blinders stifle unique opportunities for innovation?

This is, of course, the opinion of Dr. Volker Bilgram, of HYVE – The innovation company, and Dominik Böhler, of the Technical University of Munich. In both presentations, the term “car guys” was used to describe the old school German state-of-being defined by risk aversion, over-engineering, and bureaucracy. This mentality was in straight opposition to the new wave of German startups that espouse bold innovation, human centered design, and flat decentralized work culture.

Paul Günther of Proglove

Founders of Proglove Paul Günther (product engineer) and Thomas Kirchner (CEO) embody this new wave of German startup culture. Kirchner is a former IDEO employee and with Günther, a former BMW employee, created a smart glove for industries. The glove was created through rapid prototyping and iterations incorporating continuous feedback from manufacturing workers. Contrary to the culture espoused by Wolfgang at Mercedes, the culture at Proglove empowers workers to choose when they start their days and provides access to unlimited vacation. But the auto industry isn’t the only sector German disruptors are attacking.

A short flight to Berlin, brought us to a fintech start up called Number 26 (N26). N26 is a mobile bank that offers millennial friendly features such as cash from any ATM without fees, instant account management and security, and real-time notifications. A week after CBS visited N26, the company closed a $160M round of funding  which is one of largest European fintech investments ever and clearly causally linked to our visit. N26’s success comes as a revelation as traditional European lenders, such as Deutsche Bank AG, continue to struggle posting its 3rd annual loss in a row.

*Quick meta note that Deutsche Bank decided to cancel our company visit on the day of, which is also causally linked to their string of failures.

I’m losing my train of thought trying to balance a clear theme of lessons learned in Germany while also trying to sum up the company visits for the week.  In the meanwhile…here are some more cool pictures to help illustrate the trip:img_3117

CBS visit to Factory Berlin – A community of startups

BMW Welt – The building is made to look like 4 cylinders of a car engine
CBS students (who received the red sweater navy pants memo) at Spotcap 
CBS at the Berlin Wall

Ok, I’m back! So just to recap, we have this cultural shift in mentality from the big German business players represented by Wolfgang Bernhard, formerly of Mercedes, to the new wave of scrappy startups mostly based out of Berlin’s silicon allee. But a question remains in this risk averse German culture, where does the financial capital come from to fuel the German disruptors?

Our journey in Berlin, took us to Earlybird Venture Capital, a venture capital investor focused on European technology companies. The fund was established in 1997 and has over EUR 850 million under management. While the firm officially funds companies at all stages, they did emphasize that demonstrable traction, such as revenue, is significantly more important to them when compared to their Silicon Valley VC counterparts. We were especially pleased, however, to see that in a male dominated VC world, the two rising stars at Earlybird presenting to us were young women. It is VCs like Earlybird who are enabling the German startup scene to flourish.

Milda Jasaite and Rebecca Hu of Earlybird Venture Capital

It is safe to conclude that the success of traditional and new German businesses will be integral to the countries’ global position moving forward. While we got our healthy dose of what is “new and sexy” in terms of German startups – it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bath water in terms of the culture that has made Germany so successful in the past – the hyper-focus on perfection. The future of innovation has unlimited potential in Germany, whether it will be the “car guys” or the disruptors (or a combination of both) who lead this future, is still being determined.

-Chris Russell

The Experiential Real Estate of Shanghai

Strike up a conversation with any real estate professional and soon enough the “death of retail” topic will come up. Slightly exaggerated, perhaps, but retailers and the real estate they occupy are facing significant challenges as e-commerce continues to evolve. One message that we received again and again from the real estate experts that we met in China was that bricks and mortar retailers have already gone through many of the growing pains associated with e-commerce and learned the importance of “experiential retail” years before it became a buzzword in the US.

One of our first meetings in Shanghai was with Value Retail at their newly opened Shanghai Village. Located near the Shanghai Disney Resort, the luxury outlet mall is well positioned to attract nearby tourists. Meeting with Caleb Perrin, a Columbia MSRED graduate, and Lillian Cheng, it was clear that value proposition of Shanghai Village was hospitality and experience, rather than just providing a retail offering.

Our hosts began our tour with a discussion in the VIP hospitality room where shopping guest can relax, enjoy refreshments and have a concierge assist them with anything. Shoppers could also register so their purchases will be sent to concierge to be picked up at the end of the day or shipped directly to their home, staving off fatigue from hauling around heavy shopping bags. Boutiques were spacious and uncluttered, reminding us more of 5th Avenue retailers rather than a typical US outlet mall. The one design challenge that our group noticed was the open-air concept. While common in US and European outlet shopping centers, poor weather and air quality keeps customers away. We visited Shanghai Village on a rainy weekday and noticed very few shoppers around.

We built on our experiential retail tour with a tour of Swire’s HKRI Taikoo Hui, a mixed-use development in Shanghai’s vibrant Jing’an District with two office buildings, a retail mall, and three hotels / serviced apartments. The luxury boutiques are well-suited to the high-end neighborhood and contains the world’s largest Starbucks (29,000 square feet). The Starbucks Reserve Roastery is a highly experiential concept. The spaces doubles as a coffee factory and guests can learn about the roasting and brewing process while tasting coffees from all over the world. While coffee shops are not as vulnerable as fashion retailers to e-commerce, the Starbucks Reserve serves as a major draw to both locals and tourists for the shopping center.

Robin Lore ’19


The group touring Shanghai Village


The group touring Shanghai Village


World’s largest Starbucks in Taikoo Hui

Paris and London: pick your side

Paris or London: falling in love with the lovely French accent or being enchanted by the distinctive British humor? Our RLG Paris & London Chazen has come to an end, but we still cannot decide which city stole our heart.

Is it Paris, the capital of luxury, where you can eat a ‘Croque Monsieurs’ in one of the many cafés, where the smell of freshly baked baguettes will reach you from far away, where delicious macarons are served after each meal and where there is always an art exhibition worth seeing?

Or is it London, the fashion capital renowned for its distinctive street style, where pubs are national institutions, where you will never get tired of taking long strolls in one of the many parks, and where the Royal Houses and its inhabitants are among the greatest attractions?

Fascinated by the many distinctiveness, we also noticed the striking similarities: both cities are built around a river (the Seine and the Thames), there is a bohemian neighborhood where artists love to hang out (Montmartre and Chelsea), both cities are home to very prestigious universities (La Sorbonne and HEC, London School of Economies and London Business School), they both have famous amusement parks nearby (Disneyland Paris and Harry Potter World), and there are in both Paris and London globally prestigious Opera Houses (Opera and Royal Opera House).

During this engaging week, we have come to appreciate the beauty of two of the most vibrant cities in Europe: even if the 13 company visits kept us all extremely busy, the romantic atmosphere and the vibrant vibe of these places did not go unnoticed.

G.K. Chersterton said ‘London is a riddle. Paris in an explanation’: why shall we choose,  then, when we can have them both?

~ Alice Signori ’18