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The Shrinking Planet

International Business in Asia

by Diana C. Simmons

In May 2001, Brigham Young University sent out its fourth group of undergraduate business students to Asian sites: Tokyo, Singapore, Vietnam, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Sponsored by the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies and the Marriott School’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER), the Asia Study Abroad program is designed to build excellence in business education with an international perspective, while fulfilling BYU’s mission to “go forth and serve.”

The annual business excursion, which originally involved only graduate students, expanded in 1997 with the intent of teaching undergraduates the fundamentals of international business. An important step because, according to Bill Giauque, professor of operations management—“The world is getting smaller.” Not only has McDonalds seen the advantages of international expansion, but many other businesses are branching into new areas. Asia seems particularly advantageous—it’s relatively cheap as Giauque pointed out (labor is about two dollars a day), and it also represents an enormous market—approximately 1.2 billion people in China alone. Asia is an ideal place to study international business because of its variety of governments, economics, and cultures, according to Kristie Seawright, director of CIBER and founder of the program.

“We thought it would be best if students could learn about business with an international perspective onsite. And so that was the experiment: could we teach international business as well as basic marketing, basic operations, management, and strategy from an international perspective by taking the students to Asia. We found it to be more successful than we had anticipated,” Seawright said.

The program, which takes place during spring term, is open to students with a strong interest in business who attend BYU, BYU–Idaho, or BYU–Hawaii.


Although the students don’t actually leave the United States until the middle of spring term, preparations for the trip begin as early as January to allow students the time to obtain visas and immunizations. Academic preparation occurs during the first four weeks of spring term. In order to prime students for the experience, directors and teachers involved with the program feel it necessary to study companies before departure. “The idea is not to just go out and see things, but to figure out how they do things,” Giauque noted. In order to do this, students must be able to compare. “Students visited with Swire bottling here; we talked about who they are and what they do worldwide, and then we visited the bottling plant in Hong Kong, which is the tallest bottling plant in the world,” said Joan Young, undergraduate director of the Marriott School and director of this year’s program. Students also visited Disney and Modus Media in the United States before visiting their foreign counterparts.

Left to Right: The Forbidden City; Students visit the Forbidden City; The marketplace; The opera in China

Since a cultural understanding is an essential part of business, students must learn about the Asia’s cultural aspects as well. They listened to guest speakers, studied CultureGrams, and read a book about China prior to this year’s trip. Students were required to sign up for an “expert field” such as a cultural site or a place of business they would be visiting, and present their information to the class. By doing so, students were able to gain more from their Asia experience. 


The program presents a valuable opportunity for students to increase their understanding of business because they see it in action, and they also have the chance to talk with managers in each aspect of business: marketing, financial, operational, etc. — opportunities most students wouldn’t have otherwise. Comparisons of companies in and out of the United States magnifies what adjustments are made—an important aspect in understanding what makes for a successful business—just as the comparisons of businesses within the same country show why some are prosperous and others are not. To fulfill the requirements of the latter, students visited various shoe plants in Vietnam, including Nike.

Visiting the Nike plant was a powerful experience for many students. After visiting the local shoe plants Joshua Holt, professor of business management at BYU–Idaho, was convinced that Nike was “the Cadillac of plants—no bad smells, clean conditions, people waiting in line to get a job.” On the other hand, the conditions in other local shoe companies were less than pleasant. “It is such a shock because we visit other local plants, and Nike is so much nicer,” Seawright said. “It’s a good way for students to realize that they need to look at some of these issues from the workers’ perspective.” Due to the significant amount of bad press Nike has received in the United States, some may still doubt these reports. In that case, Terry Lee, associate chair of business management, challenged, “I took videos. I can show anybody the videos.”

As students become more aware of cultural, economic, and governmental differences, they can better grasp what kind of alterations are necessary for international expansion. “It’s impossible to be successful in global business without understanding the cultural differences and what makes things work,” stated Joseph Ogden, assistant dean over external communications for the Marriott School. “Proctor and Gamble was unsuccessful in Japan for many years because they took their U.S. model and attempted to just roll it out in Japan.”

Now, however, they are learning to adjust. “The little sample packages for us,” said Val Hawks, associate professor of manufacturing engineering and engineering technology, “are their biggest market. The Chinese can’t afford the big bottle of shampoo, so they’ll use one of those little packets on their date night.” Michelle Silva, a student participant this year, added, “The wording on their shampoo bottles is altered, so that Asians don’t buy shampoo that is intended to treat oily hair, thinking it will make their hair oily.” Students quickly learn that seemingly small differences like these can have a big impact on how the product is received.

In some cases, it is not just the marketing of the product that makes a difference, but how the actual product appears. The Disney company in Japan found it necessary to alter some of their products for the Japanese market— specifically, Winnie the Pooh. “They changed Pooh’s face a little bit and softened it; it was too harsh for the Japanese,” said Young, “and the sales increased rapidly afterwards from about 15 percent of their sales to about 30 percent.”

When conducting business in Asia, it is important to remember formality and the expectations involved. “In Asia, gift-giving is a part of the formalized business culture,” Seawright related. “We give gifts to our hosts for two reasons: one is, of course, in gratitude for them taking the time to help us; the other is for students to learn how to do that. They need to see that behavior.” Of course, one must be careful when choosing gifts. “We, as we get gifts, discuss them with natives,” Seawright said. “We have learned that we can’t give clocks in China. The word for clock is very similar to death, and to give a clock to someone is very insulting.” The group usually chooses to give Marriott School or BYU memorabilia, such as pens or t-shirts.

Left to Right: Tokyo skyline; Torii Gate; Students in Tokyo; Miyajima Island; Students and advisors visiting NEC Technologies Corporation


Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the program is the service aspect—the kind of experience that students come home with new insight and appreciation for life. One of these activities is visiting and contributing supplies to a Vietnamese orphanage for hearing-impaired children. “In Vietnam,” said Rachel Kearl, a student participant in the 2000 program, “the people were so friendly and warm and generous. Everywhere we went people wanted to talk to us and spend time with us, and at the orphanage it was all of that times ten.” Similarly, Ogden said, “The Vietnamese people seemed to be some of the most genuine, sincere people that I’ve encountered. The kids were very sweet.”

Although it might seem communication would pose a barrier, it didn’t cause much of a problem. “It was interesting. At first the orphans and students just kind of looked at each other, but once they started playing, it was really fun,” said Young. Kearl reported, “We communicated through jump rope, Frisbee, and pictures. They responded so warmly.” Visiting the orphanage is a significant part of the program that broadens the students’ perspectives. “These children have three and a half strikes against them,” Seawright said, “and they are still happy. They realize it’s not money that makes you happy, it’s not having a future or being able to hear, it’s love.”

Another service activity involves visiting microcredit projects. It is “more of a service-learning activity,” according to Seawright, where students have the opportunity to visit microcredit projects to see how people have used the money to build up their businesses and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the business. “Learning takes place on three different levels,” Seawright explained. “First of all, they understand business problems and how to solve them in a small way; second, they write cases, which helps them visualize how a specific problem fits into the whole scheme of the business; and third, they learn how to give consulting advice appropriately, where they build self-esteem while sharing ideas that help the microentrepreneur.”

According to Beth Haynes, professor of economics at BYU–Hawaii, whose group visited a project in the Philippines in 1999, the opportunity to interview microentrepreneurs in Manila was one of the most memorable experiences. “They were located deep in neighborhoods of wretched poverty. Talking with individuals who live in these circumstances, but who also have hope and, through microcredit, an opportunity to become self-reliant, had a profound impact on me and on the students.”

After interviewing the people, students wrote cases—reports detailing what the entrepreneurs were doing and how their businesses were working— that are now used to help train other entrepreneurs. Jen Fernholz, a BYU–Hawaii student, said, “I was actually able to enter two households and, through the help of a translator, actually talk to the people about what their lives were like and how they run their small businesses from their homes. That was probably my favorite part of the program. I really felt like I connected and saw more of the way that these amazing people live their lives.”

Subsequent visits to microcredit projects have taken place in Vietnam, where the experiences are equally memorable. “Some of the people were doing really amazing things,” said Kearl. “It was cool to see what some of them were doing with five or ten dollars. Small amounts of money to us, but they were producing. People are unique individuals and when you give them the chance to succeed, and to grow, and to be, they jump at it. That was awesome to see.” Silva remarked that the people were so grateful for things that we would take for granted. “These families were excited just to have indoor plumbing,” she said. Ogden added, “It was interesting to see what they bought when they got a little money. The first thing they bought in every case was a toilet; the second thing was a new roof.”

Students return with the realization that by contributing just a little bit, they can really do a lot. “The students just get an awakening, and they suddenly realize how much is out there, and the impact that they can have, small or large,” said Young.

Left to Right: Students touring NKK Steel in Keihin, Japan; Hong Kong harbor; Singapore sunset; Skyscrapers in Singapore


Another part of the program includes interacting with Asians and learning about their culture. “In every country we try to give the students a chance to interact with the people,” Young reported. One of the ways they do this is by using public transportation: buses, subways, taxicabs, and pedi-cabs (bicycles with seats on the back). “That was a cool experience to sit on the subway and ask someone directions. You start to talk to them, and it just kind of snowballs,” said Kearl. Other interactions were more formalized, where the group met with students from local universities—Vietnamese college students went with them to the orphanage, and they met students from Nankai University in Tianjin. It was during such an experience—while visiting with English students in Ho Chi Minh City two years ago—that the idea of handing out BYU pins came into the picture and caught on.

“I was so proud of our students,” Seawright recalled, “They reached out, they tried to understand the culture, they talked about our culture, and the students were thrilled about interacting with these Americans. Afterwards we wondered what we could do to help them remember our students and how they felt when they were with them.” Seawright had a spark of genius—the BYU pins she kept with her. She passed them out to each student, who then gave them to their Vietnamese friends as a token to remember them by. “It’s become a tradition,” Seawright said. Now, she doles them out to the students before the trip. Kearl explained, “Every time we met someone we were supposed to give them one. It represented a group of people who hopefully left good things, good memories.”

During the trip, the group also had the opportunity to visit the Hong Kong and Tokyo temples, memorable experiences. Seeing the Hong Kong temple was a particularly emotional experience for Hawks, who served his mission there, and whose mission home actually stood in the spot where the temple now stands. “I turn the corner and see a temple, Moroni standing there, and it sends shivers up my spine,” he said. Students also had the chance to visit cultural sites, such as a Buddhist shrine in Tokyo, where they saw the largest Buddha in the world; the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam; Little India in Singapore; and Tiananmen Square—where they flew kites—and the Forbidden City in Beijing.


The significance of the Asia experience did not lie only in the East—some of it came straight from the United States. “A portion of the insights you gain from an experience like this have to do with people. How they relate to each other; how they appear at first compared to after having spent a few weeks with them. These insights are reminders that people have strengths, talents, gifts, and weaknesses. That’s true no matter what nationality you are, no matter where you live,” said Hawks. Others expressed the same. “One of the students talked to me and said, ‘I am so glad I came. I really got to know my fellow classmates. I saw another side of them. We built friendships.’ In a way, I think that’s at least as valuable as the things we saw. It was just a lot of fun,” Giauque recalled. Ogden agreed, “We all became really close, kind of like family. It’s a great way to build a relationship with somebody.”

Part of the closeness came not just from daily interaction, but from sharing life-changing experiences together. Young recounted her experiences at Victoria Peak, Hong Kong, “It was at night, and we could see the whole city, and you could get a sense of the lightness in Hong Kong, and the students had such a feeling. We sang the ‘Spirit of God’ out there on this little outpost, the Spirit was so strong, and just as we finished, this Chinese couple came on the path, and it was like they felt it too, and they stayed and talked to us for a long time. I think it makes a big difference just having these moments.”

Seawright believes experiences like these are due to high-caliber students. “We have spiritual experiences that we wouldn’t have with other groups of students. The students are anxious to learn, they’re excited, they’re trying to pull together the things they’re learning. They’re curious, inquisitive, anxious to learn.”

Left to Right: Statuary in Hue, Vietnam; Joseph Ogden and students sitting in the world’s longest corridor, Summer Palace in Beijing, PRC.; Fishing nets at Chau Doc, Vietnam; Market in Vietnam; Local resident taking a pig to market.


The idea is that after the students return from their trip, they will have added insights that will benefit them in their business careers. “I think the foreign business trips give students an incredible edge in their careers, because it gives them real solid snapshots of the differences across cultural borders,” said Ogden. Lee agreed, “It allows them to say, ‘Yes, I’ve been out there; I know what it’s about. I’ve talked to high-level managers; I’ve talked to workers.’ So it gives a perspective that people don’t have who haven’t been overseas. It gives them an insight that other students would not have, and therefore, as they get into their jobs, as they’re doing business, they’re going to be better able to talk about and direct how their part should be done if it’s facing some international competition or if they’re working with overseas partners.”

An additional benefit involves not necessarily business, but life skills. “Each student gained confidence in functioning outside of his or her comfort zone,” said Haynes. “By the time students have survived six Asian airports, sets of customs agents, currencies, and learned to ride buses, taxis, and pedi-cabs in multiple cities, they feel like they could get themselves where they might need to be in almost any corner of the world. They become citizens of the world.”

The business excursion offers students not only business insights that will benefit their careers, but insights into culture and people that gives them a greater understanding of what life is and what role they play. As Hawks aptly summed it up, “There are aspects relating to business, production, manufacturing, etc., that are different, but those are not as important; those are secondary things you learn. Most important is the culture and the people—the true education.”

For more information, contact the CIBER office at (801) 422-6495, or International Study Programs, 280 HRCB, (801) 422-3686. For a look at other international study options, check online here.