Global Insights On-Site: McIntire J-Terms

We recently checked in with faculty and some of the students they brought with them to discover more about the innovative businesses and unique cultural experiences that have come to define McIntire’s J-term courses.

All of us hope to make the most of our time on this planet. As existential as that statement may read, the sentiment behind it may be doubly true for undergraduate UVA students: They have so many possibilities available to them during their four years and relatively little time in which to do it. And for those students who choose to enroll in the 10-day McIntire treks held during January term (“J-term,” as they’re known), that brief span of time between busy semesters is spent particularly well, as they learn directly from Commerce School faculty and people who are part of global business communities in locations around the world.

At the start of 2024, four McIntire faculty members led students to different parts of the globe for packed itineraries that gave students real-world exposure to how business is done across an array of regions. Professor Robert Webb guided a class to Asian financial capitals Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the island Republic of Singapore; Professor Kisha Lashley’s Kenya course studied the business issues of conservation in the East African nation; Professor Mark White’s Investing in a Sustainable Future took students to innovative companies in Germany and Switzerland; and Professor Stefano Grazioli led undergraduates to Mendoza, Argentina, to produce information technology consulting solutions for local wineries.

We checked in with each of the faculty members—and some of the students they brought with them—to discover more about the innovative businesses and unique cultural experiences that have come to define McIntire’s J-term courses.

Asian Financial Capitals

Webb says that it is important for students to see firsthand the challenges and opportunities that Asian businesses face. “Students learned that although Singapore is not a mini-New York or mini-London as a financial center, there are various areas of finance where the city can do extremely well. These include wealth and asset management and physical commodity trading, among others,” he says. “The same is true of Kuala Lumpur, which has carved out a niche in the rapidly growing area of Islamic finance but otherwise is not a major financial center.”

The students visited and/or heard presentations from companies including Citibank, Etiqa, International Islamic Liquidity Management, INCEIF University, Khazanah Nasional Berhad (KNB), Maybank Islamic in Kuala Lumpur, and Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB); in Singapore, Den Norske Bank, HashKey Capital, Lumen Advisors, Equinor, EQT Partners, Optiver, Blackstone, Airbus, and Rongsheng Petrochemical shared insights with the class.

Students also had the benefit of meeting and learning from many other professionals who presented to the group, which included UVA alumni living and working in both cities.

Amran Affifudin (McIntire ’97) hosted the class the class at KNB, Andrew Shipley (McIntire ’87) of shipbroker Eastport Maritime spoke to the students, and Geoff Stockwell (McIntire ’00), McIntire Global Advisory Board (MGAB) member, hosted the class at Blackstone. Additionally, fellow MGAB member Matt O’Neill (McIntire ’99) helped arrange the Citibank visit, and Clara Lee (McIntire ’09) helped arrange a presentation from Yaohong Ch’ng from January Capital in Singapore.

Webb believes that many students were particularly surprised by Shipley’s presentation, which “discussed the complexity of chemical tankers required to transport various chemicals—some of which explode if contact with saltwater occurs—as well as the huge volatility of freight rates.”

Ze Goh (McIntire ’24) says that INCEIF University was “both intellectually stimulating and culturally engaging,” as students were introduced to Islamic finance, “a branch of the industry that most Western curriculum overlooks despite its growing relevance.” Goh says that all of the talks in Kuala Lumpur worked to provide an “in-depth understanding of a system where different morals and beliefs alter the financial systems and its effects on how local business functions. In addition to the element of cultural empathy, the contrast also allowed us to compare and reflect on western financial markets.”

Maybank Islamic in Kuala Lumpur also intrigued Charles Healy (McIntire ’25). “It was fascinating to understand the differences between conventional and Islamic finance from a real institution’s perspective,” he says. “It allowed me to hear how the bank follows Sharia law yet still offers profitable products to its clients,” he says, noting that the interaction between government policy and business proved interesting, as he learned how the Malaysian government incentivized banks to offer Sharia products by allowing them to open more branches. “We discussed how Islamic finance was gaining traction in all these areas in Malaysia, and newer trends like ESG investing were doing the same in places like Singapore.”

Healy says that as a Finance concentrator, he’s more interested in learning how nations approach conventional financial products while working across religious and cultural differences. “Professionally, it allowed me to see how many opportunities exist to work overseas. We connected with many UVA alumni, allowing me to expand my network,” he says, expressing a newfound desire to work overseas after he graduates.

Goh was energized by the many corporate connections facilitated during J-term, and also found the opportunity “to experience the integration of a country’s culture with the company’s culture from an Eastern perspective” to be invaluable.

UVA in Kenya: The Business of Conservation

To learn about the many challenges of conservation, Lashley led students on an exploratory journey that studied the many pressing issues involved and the role of the private sector in confronting some of these problems. Students experienced the rich culture of Kenyan food, art, and customs and the nation’s renowned wildlife, quickly coming to appreciate connections and disparities between their home environments and the context of their East African hosts.

“We live in a globally connected world, where actions in one part of the globe can have repercussions elsewhere. This makes it necessary for business professionals to be able to analyze complex problems and generate solutions that provide value for multiple constituents,” Lashley explains. “I wanted to take the students far out of their comfort zones, immerse them into a complex issue, and have them develop solutions that account for the disparate needs of different stakeholders. The issue of wildlife conservation in Kenya provided an ideal context.”

Students arrived in Nairobi and visited cultural sites including the Kazuri Beads Factory and the National Museum of Kenya for context before learning about the conservation landscape at the Kenya Wildlife Service, and then the Chyulu Wilderness Camp, where they stayed for multiple days. Once there, they viewed presentations at Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT) headquarters to learn about the Trust, as well as its carbon credits project; met with Maasai representatives to hear about the REDD+ Project (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, with the “+” representing additional sustainable forest carbon stocks management); heard from Tsavo Trust representatives and Maasai women undertaking grass restorations; and spent time observing wildlife in Tsavo National Park.

Daniel Bronfman (McIntire ’25) says the MWCT was his favorite site visit, as it exposed the students to projects in action. “A lot of times when referring to conservation, we refer to national or international initiatives. This visit tightened the scope, and for the first time, I could see the meaningful change,” he says. “Not only that, but the lives being changed were those of the people on the land where we were staying. I saw their faces, and I saw the impact that the MWCT was making.”

Jack Delp (McIntire ’25) agreed, finding the MWCT to be a particularly interesting conservation stakeholder group because of their diversity of efforts such as “employing local indigenous groups to empower them, lobbying in the government, advocating for international relief, and in all, trying to turn a profit,” he says. “It seemed impossible, if not just really difficult, for a few people who ran the camp to juggle so many different objectives and do them all rather successfully.”

The MWCT also stood out for Brianna Kamdoum (McIntire ’24), who was surprised to see the outsized positive impact the Maasai were having independently and with minimal government aid. “They were building schools and infrastructure, increasing medical care and emergency services, addressing women’s health, protecting wildlife, and much more,” she reports. “A lot of what they do as a community is what we would consider public goods that would be expected of the government to provide to its citizens, so I was very impressed with what they have established thus far.”

Bronfman, Delp, and Kamdoum all concluded that conservation is a global problem that requires stakeholders to work together—despite conflicting views and desired outcomes—and to accept incremental successes, focusing on progress rather than sweeping solutions.

Bronfman says studying conservation in Kenya changed how he will view difficult issues and seek out more perspectives. “I learned a lot about managing stakeholders who may be at odds with each other,” he says. “Discovering solutions that not only provide value to, but involve all stakeholders, is the key to productive solutions. Figuring out how to get buy-in and provide value to these stakeholders was a key lesson from the trip.”

In the short term, Delp says he has taken a greater interest in global commerce and the dynamics of its participants. Professionally, he says that being in Kenya provided “true perspective on some of the problems around the world—poverty, stagnant economic development, conservation, developing governments, and people,” explaining that he plans to approach new problems with more empathy and with a wider lens.

The course impacted Kamdoum greatly, and she credits Lashley with creating the experience that she hopes to apply to her post-graduate work in finance and agriculture. She also intends to emulate it: “When I become a professor, this is the type of engagement I would like to have with my future students!”

Reflecting on the lessons of the J-term to Kenya, Lashley herself says, “This type of experiential learning can have lifelong benefits for students as they navigate their personal and professional lives.”

Investing in a Sustainable Future: Germany and Switzerland

During the 12-day J-term course put together by White, students explored sustainability in practice, meeting with business practitioners who are leading integration efforts to drive strategic and competitive advantage in Europe. The organizational and cultural visits took them to Berlin, Dresden, Zürich, and Luzern.

Speakers shared their expertise on diverse topics ranging from food production (Formo, Planted), building materials (Madaster), and emerging battery technologies (Phenogy) to carbon capture (Climeworks), sustainability consulting (BELIEVE), financial services (UBS), ESG metrics (S&P Global), impact investing (EQT Partners), and others.

While there were many engaging presentations, White says students were particularly wowed by conversations around some food alternatives designed to create a more sustainable future. Those included a discussion of entomophagy (the practice of eating insects); a presentation from Formo, a company that makes animal-free cheese using precision fermentation techniques; and another from one from Planted, a Swiss company manufacturing plant-based meats.

Lucy Hirshland (A&S ’25), a Cognitive Science major who has been working for the past three years at sustainable products company Earth Brands, found Formo’s strategy and business model clever: “They found a gap in the market, where vegan cheese was lacking tasty options, and came up with a creative and innovative solution, creating a high-quality product that is nearly identical to animal-based cheese without the environmental impact,” she says. “I could definitely see Formo growing quickly and expanding their market share, simultaneously helping to reduce biodiversity loss and GHG emissions coming from animal-based cheese.”

White says that each of the food presentations was eye-opening for students to see “the impact our eating habits have on the planet—meat consumption contributes mightily to the production of greenhouse gases—while offering tasty and economically viable solutions,” clarifying that only the cheese and plant-based chicken that students sampled won them over. The insects? “While interesting and instructive, it didn’t make the short list of, ‘Gee, I wish we could find these in the United States!’” he says.

Other company presentations that were highlights included visits to Climeworks, UBS, and EQT Partners.

White says that Climeworks, the first viable direct air capture (DAC) and storage company removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, proved to be fascinating: “We learned about the company’s technology and future plans, topped off with a visit to its initial installation on the roof of a waste-to-energy plant.”

UBS hosted the group for a full morning of presentations detailing the bank’s sustainability efforts across their operations, lending, and investing activities. “They really rolled out the red carpet for us, designing a hands-on portfolio management learning activity that resonated strongly with the students. UBS is a clear leader in this space, and we are oh so grateful for their engagement and willingness to share their expertise with us!” White says.

EQT Partners, led by CEO Christian Sinding (McIntire ’94), provided three inspiring presentations on how the firm incorporates impact and sustainability in all of its investments; in addition to delivering an outstanding presentation himself, Sinding was instrumental in arranging visits to Formo and Climeworks, White says.

White also credits Max Gottschalk (McIntire ’95), Founding Partner of Vedra Partners and Ocean 14 Capital, who gave a talk on his own efforts in the impact investing space, for providing helpful connections to UBS, and to Natascha Lander, CEO and Founder of sustainability consultancy BELIEVE; in turn Lander, who also shared her sustainability story with the group, helped to arrange student visits to both recycled messenger bag company FREITAG and battery tech company Phenogy.

Phenogy’s product and approach to scalability resonated with Statistics major Lucas Johnson (A&S ’24). “The ability to shift away from lithium batteries is critical to our global health; we currently depend on just one country for 90% of the world’s lithium production, and most of this sourcing is done through child labor and earth-damaging practices,” he says.

“Phenogy’s zinc solution is unique because we will move to a central building block that is 1/20 of the price, safer, and more sustainably produced,” he adds, noting that their go-to-market strategy was impressively advanced in both its timetable for growth and low-cost, open-source production.

Beyond the company visits, White says that Anand Kanoria (McIntire ’06), CEO of APAGCoSyst Electronic Control Systems and MGAB board member, and his wife, Diya, Founder of experiential sustainability education organization Make the Change, hosted the students for a Swiss dinner, topped off by an engaging group debate on the merits of various sustainability topics. “Fun fact: Anand was my student in the very first iteration of this course back in 2005!” says White.

The results of the course were overwhelmingly positive.

“This class left me feeling inspired and energized by the amazing environmental tech startups that are already making huge strides in fighting climate change and has helped me realize that technology as a whole is an extremely fast-moving industry that may be able to develop our quickest solutions and should be a major focus in global sustainability,” says Hirshland.

White insists that having students hear from actual practitioners about the problems they’re attempting to solve, as well as “learning the context behind their efforts, the challenges they face, and what they hope to accomplish,” inspires students to want to make a difference themselves. “Rather than focusing on gloom and doom, these companies and individuals were getting up every morning and actually doing it,” he says. “Having a vision of a more sustainable future and working to achieve it—that’s what we need, and that’s what our speakers shared. I’m super grateful to all the folks who helped bring this outstanding experience to fruition, especially our generous hosts, my partner, Janelle Perron Jennings from Student Services, Darci Spuck from our global outreach program, and all the folks at McIntire Global and the International Studies Office.”

Global Technology Consulting in Mendoza Argentina

Every December, Grazioli takes a select group of executive students in McIntire’s M.S. in the Management of IT to Mendoza, a city in Argentine wine country, where they work on real-world consulting with local small businesses. During J-term, he also leads undergrads to Mendoza for their own consulting experience in IT.

Students worked in six teams on their own unique projects provided by one of three Argentine winery clients, Finca Decero, Finca Bandini, and Durigutti; faculty and translators helped guide the students as they learned about global business by analyzing business problems, identifying and proposing viable solutions, and then, presenting recommendations to the companies.

“This course differentiates itself from other study-abroad offerings because it delivers an intense, realistic, international consulting experience in a foreign location with real-world customers,” says Grazioli, noting that, as opposed to other broader topics and larger geographical areas, his course goes deeper on a specific issue and location.

With a primary goal of developing professional intercultural competencies that demonstrate an appreciation of the differences in business practices between Argentina and the U.S.—and to successfully navigate those differences—students in Mendoza take part in business practices requiring them to work directly with clients at their businesses and interact with managers, employees, and customers to understand the needs of the companies and understand the regional differences in approaches between their home country and Argentina.

Grazioli cites an informal experiment conducted among faculty and students to show the cultural interplay at work.

“Argentines routinely kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet, even in business or formal situations,” he explains. From the very beginning of the class, students were trained to comply with the unfamiliar social norm to “‘Give kisses, not handshakes to your clients!’” he recalls they were told. “As you can imagine, this practice generated a fair amount of embarrassment and reticence, at the beginning. Our mostly North American students are not used to this level of social intimacy. Yet, in time, they got used to it.” Grazioli remarks that it became part of their routine at client offices at the start and end of each daily visit.

“During our farewell dinner, we asked our students to revert to handshakes, and exchange them with each other. It was both funny and, at least to me, heartwarming to see how the students felt those handshakes to be somewhat cold and impersonal, and how unnatural the handshakes felt after two weeks of warm welcomes given and received by the Argentine people they met,” he says. “No doubt, they will go back to our formal business ways, but I believe that they will remember that experience that night for a long time.”

So while students were immersed in local culture and took on the practice of siestas (naps) during the day and late-night dinners, carving out time for hiking the foothills of the Andes, learning to cook Argentine empanadas and asado, taking in a tango performance, rafting, ziplining, and enjoying gourmet picnics at the vineyards, they also had to adapt to unfamiliar professional and social situations.

Grazioli says that the projects students undertook were interesting, challenging, and characterized by the ambiguities typical in client-consultant interactions. Additionally, the students had to complete their projects in a compressed timeframe, working with a foreign language, and within a foreign culture. As they spent long hours collaborating on their projects, they quickly learned to identify the specific needs of their clients through interviews, root cause analysis, and direct observation.

By J-term’s end, they developed and evaluated solutions to best fit their clients’ specific needs, having learned about a new culture while gaining invaluable communication, collaboration, and presentation skills as well as the ability to effectively analyze problems and create impactful solutions for truly global businesses.

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