Rain tapped against the large glass pane windows as I sat slowly sipping my piping hot black coffee. I reclined in the over-sized chair as I settled in with my friends to wait out the storm that had seemingly come out of nowhere. The mood was relaxed. Brian reached for a book and Xavier for his computer as we shared our insights into the first two days of Latin America GIE. Still largely naïve and unaware of what to expect from our travels over the following weeks we talked about what our expectations were and what we hoped to see. Little did I know at the time that we were all vastly incorrect and that no amount of reading or lecture could prepare us for the lessons that we learned.
However, as I sit at my computer today writing this reflection, I feel I must preface my thoughts with the assertion that they are incomplete. I am still processing what I heard and saw and can take away from my travels throughout Latin America. I am sure as I have my own experiences in the business world in the United States and perhaps engage in commerce with some of the countries we visited, the experience I had on GIE will begin to clarify and revel new lessons in new applications. Until then, I feel there are some large common thoughts that I keep circling back to that will share throughout this reflection.
Over the course of four different countries, three weeks, two time zones, and one GIE, I created a snapshot of the business and cultural landscape throughout Latin America. To my surprise, the lessons that meant the most to me were the ones learned through a process similar to osmosis. The bus rides through shanty towns, the obvious disparities between men and women and indigenous people and Europeans, and the less than ideal infrastructure all impacted me in a visceral way. I have to admit that this has been a theme throughout my time at McIntire.
When I started classes last August in Charlottesville, I expected the biggest lessons to come from the classroom. Indeed, I did learn a great deal about strategy, finance, project management and quantitative analytics, but the lessons that impacted me most as a person happened because of conversations with classmates or stories of encouragement shared by professors in times of doubt. GIE helped me to grow in the same way. Seeing the extreme poverty that many people outside the U.S. live in put in stark contrast for me how easy my life has been. Given every opportunity in the world to succeed while so many others struggle daily to feed themselves and their families, I feel blessed with the weight of being appreciative for every success that might come my way in the future of my career.
We had a very busy few weeks in South America. We started our tour with company visits in the capital of Colombia, Bogota. While there we visited the Bogota Beer Company, a textile factory, Juan Valdez Café, a flower production farm, and learned about the Colombian energy sector and state of the country from the U.S. embassy. Among the most interesting of the companies was the lecturer from Juan Valdez that explained to us the importance of coffee as an export to the Colombian economy. We learned about the federation of coffee growers that allows individual farmers a way to sell their beans to the larger company. The federation supplies money to the farmers that would otherwise would have to be a certain size to be able to negotiate or market their own products. Through cooperation with the federation, Juan Valdez can sell Colombian coffee worldwide and small, local farmers have access to buyers.
Our next stop in Peru we had the privilege of hearing from the Peruvian Central Bank about the economic status of the country. We learned that the country is on a trajectory to maintain its position as the fastest growing economy in South America. We also visited a capital access company that provides small loans to business owners that need capital to expand their businesses.
In Chile we visited a number of companies and heard from a series of speakers including a professor that gave us a remarkable overview of Chile’s growth and economic structure following the institutions established by the Chicago Boys. We also visited Start-Up Chile and heard from a company called Late! that started with capital from the Start-Up Chile program. Late! is a non-profit water bottle manufacturing company that donates the entirety of its profits to charity. The premise of the company is innovate as it trades on the concept that consumers value social responsibility over supporting a commercial for-profit company.
Lastly, in Argentina we visited an array of companies including the travel start-up Despagar, Ernst & Young, and Toyota. During our plant visit to Toyota we learned about the history of the multinational company and the role that Toyota Argentina plays in the production of specific models. We learned about the company’s distribution throughout Latin America and were also able to see inside the factory to watch the assembly of the cars from start to finish.
Overall, the wide range of business visits allowed us a varied view into commerce in Latin America. At this young point in my career it is hard to pinpoint which of these visits will have the most impact or relevance to my life, however, I really enjoyed both the Start-Up Chile visit and the visit to Despegar in Argentina. It was amazing to me to hear how a startup company is utilizing the user experience aspects of its e-commerce business to create a better product for the consumers. I was fascinated to learn how the company has grown in the Argentina space and how it is continually updating its look to compete with its competitors and better the user experience.
Start-Up Chile was interesting because it was a tangible example of the work that Chile is doing to reposition itself as an emerging country and an updated player in the 21st-century business world environment. The sponsorship of creative ideas not only allows individuals a chance at success, but also benefits Chile as disruptively innovative ideas give back to the country.
As a whole, Latin America exuded a sense of willingness to be a part of the fast moving, creative and new business world that many inventions of the past 20 years have made possible. Colombia, Chile, Argentina, and Peru all felt eager to become part of the developed world with stable economies and governments. The tone for a globalized future in Latin America is optimistic and was echoed as such from Bogota Beer Company that brought brewing knowledge from Germany to brew and distribute beer to EY in Argentina that preached the excitement of Macri’s tax cutting efforts. There was an overall feeling of openness and willingness to be a part of the global economy that continues to emerge. In a time when there is more political rhetoric that spews out nationalism as the answer to the world’s problems, Latin America is looking to become more global, more open, and more progressive.
GIE was a wonderful way to end the McIntire M.S. in Commerce experience. GIE allowed us to understand the way that companies actually function in international markets. We spoke to executives and learned how they navigate the challenges that come with their markets. We applied what we learned in the classroom to the real world setting and observed business in a real time and real world environment.