Sharon Mazimba, MBA ’19, wrote this for the Olin Blog.
After what seemed like months of preparation, two flight delays, and the longest 16-hour flight later, we landed in Shanghai, China, a group of about 70 first- and second-year MBAs, exhausted but intact and ready for the intense week ahead. They were all part of a spring break overseas intensive designed to provide globally based education for the students and pilot the expanded global MBA experience for the incoming class of 2021 MBA students.
The next morning, we dove straight into our operations course, eager to understand how strategy is implemented through operations, specifically looking at the retail industry. The course would occur over the week, a mix of talks from retail industry experts, practical excursions—including visits to Zara, Uniqlo and H&M stores in the busy Pudong shopping area—a factory visit to Mudoo (a sports apparel factory) and the newly built Adidas distribution center in Suzhou.
Both the talks and excursions were an eye-opening look into the retail process from end to end, as well as the nature of business in China and how different it is from the US or other western countries. There is a highly relational and perception-based approach in the Chinese market, aspects of which I observed throughout the week. Two experiences in particular drive this home for me.
The first was a talk by Olin EMBA student Salem Cibani, who attends the program in Shanghai’s Fudan University, who shared key insights about the fashion industry. He spoke about Ports 1961, a luxury brand launched in Canada, which then moved to China to take advantage of opportunities there.
The move required the brand to completely shift their strategy in China; their products were priced significantly higher in the Chinese market because of the perception that a higher price and a distinctly Chinese aesthetic equated higher quality.
The second was how long it took to plan and build the Adidas distribution center—a three-year endeavor that involved significant pre-planning and relationship building to accomplish. This was the example most salient to me; other speakers and our Shanghai located mentors also gave a number of anecdotes about how you had to know people and be well-connected to truly establish yourself in the Chinese market and get things done.
While we learned a lot, we also had a chance to explore small but extremely cool areas of Shanghai. The city is vast and one week is not nearly enough to see it all. The Bund had amazing views of Shanghai Tower, the Yu Garden was a beautiful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, and the Tianzifang area had amazing souvenirs, quaint tea shops, and my favorite—lots of street food!
Looking back on this trip, one of my most significant takeaways (and something I will be carrying into my career moving forward) was how critical it is to tailor your strategy to different cultures; especially if you are looking to be a global player. Most businesses fail at this. The second was how incredibly unique China is. The country’s manufacturing capabilities have allowed the country to become a hotspot for major retailers to go for their apparel needs while still maintaining a distinctly Chinese way of conducting business. It was a fascinating phenomenon to observe and be a part of.