MBA students collapse cultural barriers

Face-to-face interaction helps M.B.A. students learn about other cultures and find common ground.The classroom feels less like a lecture hall and more like a boardroom. The students, mostly in their 40s and 50s, sit at their desks with name cards, …

Face-to-face interaction helps M.B.A. students learn about other cultures and find common ground.The classroom feels less like a lecture hall and more like a boardroom. The students, mostly in their 40s and 50s, sit at their desks with name cards, Palm Pilots, laptop computers and half-liter bottles of chilled spring water neatly arranged in front of them.

Although located in Tel Aviv, all conversations and lectures are conducted in the international language of business English.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Prof. Asher Tishler exclaims to the students in the well-known mantra of economics, ensuring the observer that this is indeed a classroom and not a shareholders meeting.

There is nothing usual about the 5-year-old Kellogg-Recanati International Executive MBA Program, a joint venture between the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and Tel Aviv University’s Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration. The participants in the two-year program are three-quarters Israeli, while the remaining students come from the United States, Canada, Japan, China, India, Russia, Brazil, several European countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. They come equipped with substantial experience from a number of fields, including high tech, construction, business consulting, nonprofits, health care, accounting and law.

While many are here to learn how to conduct business on the international stage, the new immigrants are here to learn how internationals do business in Israel.

“I see Kellogg-Recanati as a tool to integrate into the Israeli business environment,” Isaac Mich’ann, originally from Brazil, said. Many aspects of the Israeli business environment are formally taught at Kellogg-Recanati, such the structure of the Israeli and Middle Eastern economies, the local banking system and the government’s dominant role in the domestic economy.

One intangible element, which is not taught formally, but is felt and understood by the students, is the pressure of the political turmoil which has always surrounded the business scene in Israel.

It is this kind of external pressure, which brought Mich’ann to Kellogg-Recanati from his comfortable position as an investment banker at Vertices DVTM in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“There’s a lot of pressure in Israel that you don’t have elsewhere, and you need to learn how to handle that pressure. That’s a big issue, especially in the business world.”

Robert Levits, a not-so-new immigrant from New York, learned how to deal with the political pressure first-hand. Upon arriving from Long Island in 1991, only four months before the beginning of the Gulf War, Levits initially ran an appliance repair company. After a few years, he moved into the supply side of the business and founded US Appliance, the exclusive Middle East distributor for U.S.-based appliance-parts distribution giant Marcone. Levits worked to expand beyond the domestic market, shipping parts and supplies and making frequent trips to Cairo to access markets in Arab countries. Business was expanding, until politics stepped in.

“I started getting faxes from all my Egyptian contacts,” Levits said, “saying that there were problems with my chief Israeli contact in Cairo, that she was in the country illegally and that she didn’t have a license to do business in Egypt. Soon after, the Egyptian authorities arrested her for allegedly spying for Israel. All of the Arab contacts we were dealing with became afraid to do business with us, because of what the Egyptians were saying about her.”

As neighboring Arab markets closed themselves off to Levits, his business stopped growing. “We had invested so much time in developing Arab-sector contacts. When it all fell apart, it was a big downer for us. Politics was involved.”

Having learned how to deal with the pressure of business in the Middle East, Levits came to Kellogg-Recanati to deepen his understanding of the economic and financial end of his profession.

“I was involved in closing joint ventures, contracts, finances, investment and advertising. Any time you touch on these areas, there’s a knowledge that you don’t have. In order to pick the right people for the job, you need to know a bit about what they do,” he said.

He intends to use his refined managerial skills to jump-start a new venture. “We’ll be dealing with a different type of product altogether,” he said, careful not to disclose too much detail about the project. “It’s related to the appliance industry, but at the same time tied into the whole area of smart houses and communications. That’s the direction we’re going in right now.”

In response as to why one who will soon be armed with a degree from Kellogg, widely recognized as one of the best business schools in the world, chooses to once again found a company in a country mired in the midst of a security crisis, Levits said, “Just because the situation has become what it is, I’m not going to get up and move someplace else. That’s not why I moved to Israel. I’m here, and I’ll deal with it as it is. I have no desire to live someplace else.”

Emanuel Alaluf, a new immigrant from France, concurred. “The reason why we are here is more ideological than economic. Right now, we need people from the outside, from the Diaspora, to come and strengthen the country. Not the other way around,” said Alaluf, a manager at biotechnology firm Eager-Bio Group Ltd., based in Ashdod, Israel.

Besides the Israeli backdrop, the second dominant feature of Kellogg-Recanati’s EMBA is the amount of real-world experience each student brings to the program.

“I wouldn’t even call it a purely academic environment,” Mich’ann said. “It’s more than that. It mixes business, academics and networking.” Everyone in the program is already an experienced businessman. Eight years of managerial experience and a senior position in an organization are prerequisites for all entering students. Opportunities to network are built into the program, including catered meals between classes and sessions in Chicago with participants in the parallel program at Northwestern. The idea is for the students to share and learn from each other’s experiences, and establish contacts for future ventures.

“They say that most of what you learn will be from outside of school,” Levits said, “It’s as if you are apprenticing with people who have been there and have actually done the things that we study about. We all learn off of each other’s experiences.”