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Tokyo Challenge

USC Marshall transfer students take their global studies overseas

April 13, 2018
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Spring break. It conjures up images of college students partying on the beach or poolside in bikinis and board shorts.

But for USC Marshall students, spring break is all about the business suits.

More than 450 Marshall students took advantage of their spring break to improve their international business awareness and skills. They participated in hundreds of company visits and operational observations in cities around the globe, including Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Beijing; Madrid to Brussels; Dubai, Abu-Dhabi, to Lima and Buenos Aires.

And make no mistake: While there is some free time worked into the packed schedule, these international visits mean business.  Bathing suits need not be packed.

Tokyo Challenge

The students in Tommy Knapp’s BUAD 206 class in global business have all transferred to USC Marshall from other schools. They are mostly upper-classmen, a few years older and a few years wiser—and all of them are here because they’ve strategically decided to take advantage of Marshall’s global travel opportunities.

“We can talk about this in class all day long, but until you get to Japan and see if for yourself, it remains an abstract. That’s why I love taking students on these journeys—you don’t learn like this sitting in a classroom.” -- Tommy  Knapp, associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship.

“I absolutely knew I wanted to be at USC and at Marshall, especially for the sports business class and the school’s global business opportunities,” said Skye Hagstrom ’19. “This was the class that let me, as a transfer student, have the same overseas experience as four-year students.”

The students have spent the year up until now studying business as it’s done in Japan, with its many particular nuances. They’ve researched companies and drilled down on business norms as they differ from those in the states.

On March 10th they flew into Tokyo’s Narita International Airport for an intensive six days of company visits and meetings.

They had their business cards – still an important part of business culture in japan – and they knew how to present them to executives – offered with both hands and a bow.

They knew what to wear –business formal, thank you. And they had the requisite gifts for their hosts.  The met in the lobby of their hotel early every day—returning most days some 10 hours later.

The overarching theme of the class: Entrepreneurship. In particular, how Japan’s business culture is working to embrace a mindset that doesn’t come easy to the Japanese way of tradition, order, and humility.

“We can talk about this in class all day long, but until you get to Japan and see if for yourself, it remains an abstract,” said Knapp, an associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship. “That’s why I love taking students on these journeys—you don’t learn like this sitting in a classroom.”

Over the course of the week, students gained access to enviable rooms: nimble startups and established manufacturing plants; cutting-edge entertainment technology companies and a government-run business incubator for foreign companies looking to establish a foothold in Japan, among others.

Some of the company connections were those long-cultivated by Marshall faculty and passed along. Others, like the CFO of the startup Mercari, a popular and expanding consumer-to-consumer app, were Knapp’s personal connections, extending the courtesy of their time to Knapp and his students.

A Different Mindset

This included an invitation to Tokyo University for a lecture on entrepreneurship by Professor Shigeo Kagami, Japan’s leading scholar on the topic.

Marshall students, coming from a school with a robust entrepreneurial eco-system and a dedicated academic center that champions all things entrepreneurial, were surprised to learn that similar programs at Tokyo University faced an uphill battle, even while Japan’s GDP has languished in the low single digits for more than a generation.

“There has been a dramatic change in the last decades,” Kagami told the students, outlining the university’s gradual embrace of technology commercialization and fostering of business incubators, business plan competitions and entrepreneurship education. These efforts are paying off, he noted.  While the University does not have a formal business school, many of its top students go on to become the CEOs of startups across the country.

TIE students in Tokyo 2018
TIE students in Tokyo, 2018

Students processed the information over lunch. “That was Harvard Business School-level stuff,” said Daniel Perez-Kowalski ’19, over a lunch of ramen noodles he paid for at a push-button kiosk. “I don’t think most undergraduate business students get this kind of opportunity.”

Setting the Tone

Later that day, students met with senior leaders and project managers at Denstu, Japan’s largest advertising agency.  After a question and answer session, students made their way down from the 36th floor of a gleaming high-tech high-rise just in time to get to the subway station—at about 5:15 pm. 

Learning by Doing

Even cramming into a subway car was an experience—the carriage was clean and silent—exuberant American business school students soon lowered their tone.

Lindsey Chaffey ’18, for one, was loving every minute. In high school she had volunteered to help in the cleanup efforts after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and says she had felt a strong connection to Japan ever since.

“They talk a lot about Marshall being a global school,” she said, “But it’s exactly this kind of opportunity that proves their commitment to students learning a global business mindset.”

And it was exactly why she chose to transfer to USC. With her graduation nearly upon her, she was making plans to return to Japan…and maybe start a business. The connections she’d made on this trip would be put to good use, she said.