Each year, three EMBA cohorts embark on a 10 day journey together to a new country to learn about the international business climate first hand from industry leaders. This year's trip was one for the record books, with a total of 52 travelers including On Campus Class 28, Online Classes 28 & 29, and a group of EMBA alum who couldn't wait to experience the trip after being unable to travel in 2020 due to COVID restrictions.
Although each trip takes place in a new location each year, the focus remains the same: immerse students in the international business world and local culture, connect each team with a company for the international consulting project, and solidify the bonds that students have built throughout the program.
Panama proved to be the perfect location for this year's trip. Students learned about international finance, global supply chain, and various other local industries through business visits to the Panama Canal, Colon Free Trade Zone, and Panama Pacifico to name a few. They enjoyed unique cultural experiences like touring the Embera Village and meeting its indigenous people, cheering on Panama and the USA during the world cup qualifying match, and ziplining through the rainforest. They bonded with their teammates, cohorts, other classes and alumni over rooftop dinners and karaoke.
These stories are best told from the students who experienced it all themselves; read below to hear from six students who left Panama with stories to tell:
Meeting His Cohort for the First Time in Person:
Richard Bennett, Online Class 28
While most of the country was feeling isolated, I had the luxury of building meaningful friendships and the simple gift of laughter and normalcy that my cohort and team created for all of us. Unfortunately, due to the Pandemic, we weren't given the usual opportunity for us to form these bonds in person during Orientation as it was forced to be held online. So, we dove headfirst into our online curriculum and our relationships were built while meeting virtually several times per week for lectures and small group meetings as we worked through the rigorous RIT curriculum, without ever meeting face to face. During this time, and perhaps framed by the pandemic swirling around all of us, our Cohort and team built high levels of respect, learned how to work, argue, and play together, and developed important and lasting relationships.
It's surreal to think that this group of people who had become so close, had never actually met face to face. That finally changed with our International Business trip to Panama when we finally had the opportunity to “meet” each other. Each encounter felt more like a small reunion than a first meeting. That experience only grew throughout the week as relationships, inside jokes, and history forged through challenge and new adventure strengthened our bonds. We were at last together, and we're already looking forward to reuniting again in celebration of our upcoming graduation!
Dianne Simpson, On Campus Class 28
It's incredible how much we were able to learn within our 10 days in Panama. With four dedicated business visit days, we truly got a feel for the diverse breadth of business opportunities throughout the country.
- Business day 1 we met with Elemente Inc. for a macroeconomic view of Panama’s economy, before engaging in a unique presentation on the new business opportunities in cannabis and hemp with Robust Farms, and a tasting of Panama's infamous Geisha coffee. In the afternoon we traveled to Panama Pacifico, a unique mixed-use real estate development providing attractive tax, labor, and legal incentives for multinational corporations like 3M, Dell, and many more.
- Business day 2 took us to the Atlantic city of Colon where we visited both a major Port as well as a distribution & logistic facility located within the Colon Free Trade Zone.
- With much anticipation, business day 3 brought us directly to the Panama Canal where we met with a Project Engineer at the Panama Canal Authority. We finished out the day back in Panama City's historic old quarter in the Casco Viejo neighborhood for a presentation at Selina - the hospitality unicorn born in Panama.
- Our last business day introduced us to an executive from DHL where we learned about the robust logistics network in Panama. From there we had time to break off as teams to meet with our International Consulting Project companies, and we rounded our the day with a presentation (and of course a tasting) of Panamanian rum.
While each speaker brought value and a well-rounded understanding to all that we have been learning in the EMBA program, day 3 was probably my favorite business visit. With an undergrad degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management, Selina spoke a language that I could relate to around service, and not just a customer experience, but also an employee experience where memories, feelings and interaction encompass this.
Optional Cultural Activities:
Brad Wargula, On Campus Class 27
With 10 days packed with activities rich in information and culture, I knew that I wanted to make the most of my time on the trip by signing up for all of the optional events as well. The first of the optional activities was the World Cup Qualifier match between Panama and the United States. Heading into the stadium, I was anxious to get inside and experience excitement and the buzz of a professional soccer match in Latin America. Our Panamanian tour guides spoke to a very passionate fan base which was apparent as soon as we arrived at the venue, with the line wrapped halfway around the stadium. Once inside, we were engulfed in a sea of red that ended up erupting into the loudest roar I’ve heard to date when Panama scored the one and only goal of the night. Though the US lost 1-0, it ended up being an experience I’m sure many of us will never forget.
Another highlight was the Gamboa Monkey Trek, where we ventured out into the jungle of Panama to feed monkeys followed by ziplining. The boat ride to Monkey Island was rather enjoyable, in that we were caught in a torrential downpour, and all mostly soaked. It was an experience to say the least! Finally, the skies cleared up just in time for us to meet the monkeys, feeding them bananas and grapes, all while they jumped on Jeff’s (EMBA program Director) head. The tour guides also provided a lot of humor with their funny names and narratives, as it was apparent how well they knew these monkeys. After the monkey trek, our group of 25+ thrill seekers took off on a ziplining course through the jungle. Never having ziplined before, I was a bit nervous at first, but that was all relieved after reaching the second platform. Thankfully we all made it out alive, and now have another amazing experience to remember!
Getting the Opportunity to Meet with Her Team's International Consulting Project Client:
Emily Redman, On Campus Class 28
After a full week of presentations and adventures, we wrapped up our academic programming for the international trip by meeting our client for our International Consulting Project. Personally, I was most excited, and at least equally as nervous, for this meeting as it would be my cohort’s final major project before we complete our program.
Our client, GreenLab Biotechnology, runs a start-up for in vitro plants production that began in Europe and recently opened an operation in Panama. Unfortunately, we could not meet at their facility as it is located about 3 hours outside of Panama City; however, the CEO and Production Manager traveled into Panama City meet with us, so it was great to meet with them in person! The most memorable moments from our meeting were:
- The passion they both had when explaining what they did as a company, specifically the five steps of their process.
- The CEO so naturally and fluidly switching between English, Spanish, and French – it was so impressive and had me kicking myself that I let my Spanish go (I used to be pretty fluent – shame on me!).
- We were able to have an informative and candid conversation with them where we peppered them with questions to understand their current status and business in order to hone in on the scope of the project and deliverables.
Now it's time to dig in to provide our client the helpful data and analysis they are looking for, as we prepare to cross the finish line for the program next month!
Group Cultural Activities: Embera Indigenous Village
J'Nez Thomas, On Campus Class 27
Wow! What an amazing experience and a great way to be exposed to another culture. Our journey started with a scenic canoe ride through the waters and each canoe was guided by an Embera member (paddle stick included). Our warm welcoming and lunch were the highlights, as we were embraced through traditional song and dance and fed fresh-caught Tilapia with lightly fried plantains wrapped in banana leaves. We learned the spirit of entrepreneurship and survival as a minimalist without the presence of technology and social media. We chatted up village members about their skills in carpentry, handmade wood carvings, tattooing, and jewelry. We laughed, danced, swam (surviving the current), and ended our day with a quick stop at a local tienda for an ice-cold Balboa beer.
The Embera village reminded us that at the forefront, family, community, and preserving cultural traditions are the most important aspect when traveling (and you don’t always need your phone to have a good time!) And I knew I was in the right place when the Embera chief exclaimed that “La Chica es El Jefe!” (the girl is the boss!) when talking about the family dynamics! This was truly a once in a life time experience and one that I will never forget.
Angel Jones, Online Class 29
After settling into my airline seat, headed back to Atlanta, I was quick to pull out my journal and note my thoughts. Many things - many contrasting insights - stood out to me about the country of Panama. It was beautiful and it was messy. Panama City was brand new and bygone. Individuals were kind and open but at the same time the people seemed mysterious.
It was during our time there, we were able to meet business leaders across several industries: Panama’s brightest thinkers and entrepreneurs. One of them stood out to me, beyond the others: Benito Bermudez.
Benito founded Cafe Unido, a brand of coffee and coffeehouses scattered throughout Panama and the United States. The unique value of this coffee is that it’s special - and Benito let us know it. His hand-waving, boisterous, passionate sales pitch, appropriately dotted with curse words, of Panama Geisha, the coffee variety which grows exclusively in Panama and is touted as the most expensive in the world, had me ready to backpack to a desolate, foggy mountain top to see the stuff. Based on his description, I expected it to wear a halo.
That’s just it, Benito’s success seemed to have been built on his grounded (no pun intended) confidence, his ability to tell a story, his transparency, his dedication to learning, his authenticity, and his values. And while he may have paused to search for the English word once or twice, I felt his leadership was the same in every language. Panama was a country of contradictions, but Benito showed us that successful business is not. Regardless of the country, the culture or the language, good business leadership has the same basic principles.
I can summate 15 months of business school into four words: It’s all about leadership. Whether it's applying statistics to a business problem or executing on a corporate strategy, it all boils down to the basics of leadership. Brilliance and a graduate education doesn’t get you far if you aren’t a good human.
Read more reflections and perspectives from our 2019 trip to Estonia and Finland:
- Zach Bensusan: Estonia and Finland - Digital Meets Design
- Matt Phillips: Estonia and Finland - The Alumni Experience