Globalising the value proposition of Business Schools in Latin America

Xavier Ordeñana, Dean of ESPAE Graduate School of Management in Ecuador, talks to Tim Banerjee Dhoul about plans to strengthen the School’s regional influence and attract students from around the world

Despite the entrepreneurial opportunities and growth of ‘multilatinas’, incidents of social unrest and political instability remain challenges in attracting students from outside the region to study at Latin America’s leading Business Schools, says Xavier Ordeñana, Dean of ESPAE Graduate School of  Management (ESPAE), ESPOL, Ecuador.

In this interview with ESPAE’s Dean, AMBITION finds out more about the need for greater engagement activities with the community, adaptation as a matter of survival, and the allure of Ecuador’s ‘four worlds in one’ landscape.  

What challenges does Ecuador – and Latin America as a whole – face in becoming a more prominent business education destination? 

Ecuador is a beautiful country with many tourist destinations and opportunities for businesses. However, challenges include: 

The predominance of the part-time MBA – most MBAs in Ecuador (and in the region) are part time for working professionals, in response to local demand.

Travel connectivity – this is still a challenge in Latin America, when compared to other regions, which complicates both short-term training and longer programmes.

Societal issues – these include security in some cities, social unrest and political instability which in many cases prevent students from around the world from coming to the region. 

These challenges can be overcome with clearer value propositions for MBA programmes in the region. Schools need to work on the support systems they provide to overseas students in order to make the experience more enjoyable. Also, Schools need to rethink whether a full-time (or ‘almost’ full-time) programme is more suitable when targeting an international audience.

In light of the [civil] unrest witnessed in Ecuador in October 2019, should the country’s Business Schools play a part in helping improve relationships between business, government and the country’s indigenous communities? If so, how?

The recent unrest reminded us of the importance of having successful businesses, but also the need for social impact. Business Schools – and universities in general – have a responsibility to prepare leaders and decision makers that take into account the different stakeholders involved in a firm’s ecosystem. 

ESPAE and other Schools in the country should strengthen their engagement activities to ensure that all voices are heard and lead the way for dialogues that should help us keep our country and its cultural identity on the road to development. 

Challenges of competitiveness, as pointed out by the World Economic Forum in its Global Competitiveness Report, include not only the need for a more dynamic business environment and a clearer commitment to innovation (both in the public and private sectors), but also stronger institutions. Schools can help address these competitive bottlenecks through dialogues, opinion pieces and debates, among other things. 

Why do students from outside the region choose to study MBAs
in Latin America? What sets Ecuador apart from its neighbours in
the region?

Latin America is a growing region with many opportunities. Multinationals are increasingly present in the region and ‘multilatinas’ (Latin American companies that have become multinationals) have also expanded their operations in recent years.

Latin America is also a very entrepreneurial region – and Ecuador ranks first for Total Early-Stage Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA, measured by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM)) in the region. This vibrant ecosystem generates lots of opportunity for recent MBA graduates to manage both established companies and startups.   

Ecuador is a small, emerging economy with a very diverse geography, offering ‘four worlds in one’ – the Pacific coast (where our School is located), the highlands (part of the Andean mountain range), the Amazon rainforest, and the Galápagos Islands. This diversity allows for a portfolio of businesses which should attract MBA students from around the world.  

How does the MBA at ESPAE differ from others that are available in Ecuador and the surrounding region? 

The MBA portfolio at ESPAE is unique in several ways. Both of our MBA programmes have a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship, with ‘hands-on’ experience such as boot camps, business plans and competitions. 

Our Executive MBA is the only one in the country to offer a specialisation in innovation, allowing students to develop a robust business knowledge that is complemented by expertise in areas such as innovation management and technology transfer. 

Our MBA programmes also increasingly embed sustainability within the curricula, to ensure that future CEOs are responsible managers and take into account global issues, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, when formulating their strategies. 

Is there a gap between what Business Schools are teaching and what employers need from graduates?

The business world is continuously changing and, traditionally, academia is not as quick to adapt as industry. I do believe, however, that this is slowly changing. 

The growing dialogue between Business Schools and companies, the role of lifelong learning and other types of training are drivers for a more rapid adaptation. This is something that has become a matter of survival for Schools.  

How are programme curricula developed and refined at your School to ensure that they remain in touch with the changing needs of both students and employers?

We have a close relationship with employers. Our School has a powerful advisory board composed of CEOs of institutions including the country’s largest cement company, and its most influential telecommunications company, as well as entrepreneurs and School alumni. Although the board’s role is mainly strategic, around new programmes and services, it also supports the development of new curricula. 

Each of our programmes also has its own advisory committee, advising on curricula development specifically. Since our faculty is a mix of academically qualified and professional faculty, programme directors and their associated academic committees are continuously assessing the relevance and currency of our programmes.

Student feedback is key to ensuring that each course addresses the needs of students and is preparing them to manage in an evolving world. In addition, the School engages in activities with the business and governmental sectors, including bilateral chambers of commerce, joint programmes with companies (for example, a partnership with Deloitte for an executive education programme in sustainability), among others. 

Which new programme course or initiative are you most excited about and why?

At ESPAE, we expect to expand our programme portfolio in the coming years. One of the new programmes is our first pre-experience master’s in management degree, which will aim to bring business education to a new target group. 

The master’s in management will also allow for greater international mobility, since most of its classes will be in English, and it will be held across a shorter and more concentrated timeframe. The School will also draw on alliances with institutions around the world to help introduce international students to this new programme. 

How have career opportunities for MBA graduates looking for work in Ecuador and the surrounding region evolved over the past five to 10 years, for both domestic and international students?

Most MBA programmes in Ecuador are currently part time, so most, if not all, students are working at the moment of admission. MBA students are typically looking to improve their career prospects, either within their current company, or by landing better jobs at other companies with an enhanced résumé. 

Additionally, the proportion of MBA graduates who aim to start their own business after they graduate (although not always immediately after graduating) has risen over the past decade. This has increased the need for courses to cover entrepreneurship and innovation training, as well as pitch competitions and bootcamps. 

Although the international mobility of graduates is still relatively low, it too has increased in the past 10 years, increasing the need for a globally oriented curriculum and concrete international experiences for our students. 

How important is sustainability to your Business School’s strategy and for business in general?

Our School has a longstanding tradition of practising CSR, and the wider concept of responsible management. 

ESPAE was one of the first organisations in the country to adhere to the UN Global Compact, and to sign the Principles for Responsible Management (PRME). In 2019, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of a partnership with CEMDES, the local chapter of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which makes presentations to companies on topics related to sustainable practices each year. 

As mentioned, we have introduced a programme on sustainable business models and strategies, in partnership with Deloitte, which is currently being delivered in the School’s hometown of Guayaquil, and in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

At the School, we believe that sustainability is a vital topic and an issue that companies of all sizes must consider in their strategies. That is why we have shown our commitment via the implementation of changes to the curricula, engagement activities as well as applied research (for example, business cases for the Social Entrepreneurship Knowledge Network (SEKN)). 

What are your hopes for the School in the next five years?

My main goal is for ESPAE to strengthen its regional influence. Latin America has many challenges and our School has a responsibility to help address these, not only within Ecuador but also with in terms of the wider region. 

To step up to [the region’s] challenges, students, faculty, and other stakeholders should have more opportunities to interact with those of other Schools based elsewhere in Latin America and around the world. I hope to attract more international students to our programmes, to enhance the intercultural awareness of local students. 

I also expect to see ESPAE becoming much more connected to its large network of alumni, through lifelong learning opportunities and other experiences. We are constantly working to bring our alumni back onto campus, not only for ‘social’ events, but as mentors and guest speakers. 

Xavier Ordeñana is Dean and Professor of International Business at ESPAE Graduate School of Management, Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL) in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He holds a PhD in economics and business from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain. 

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