GIFT: Experiential Learning for Executives Across Asia

10 November, 2014



Karim Rushdy, MBA ‘09, has worked at the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT) since shortly after graduating from CKGSB. Founded by Chandran Nair, GIFT is an independent Hong Kong-based pan-Asian think tank focused on advancing a deeper understanding of global economic, political and social issues through experiential learning. Rushdy spoke to CKGSB about his experiences at GIFT, as well as what he learnt while at the school.

Like CKGSB, GIFT also focuses on executive education. Why is this?

Learning should be a lifelong journey and not one that ends after graduation from school or university. Given how complex and fluid the current business environment is, it is very important that executives keep up with the changes taking place so they can ensure that their organizations continue to stay relevant and take advantage of new opportunities which arise as a result of these changes. Most think tanks are research and report driven and, although this is an important contribution to society, we have found executive education to be an effective tool to engage with leadership of large organizations and a strong platform to promote new thinking and have constructive dialogue about the role of business in society.

All GIFT programs combine a classroom module with a real-world experiential business project around Asia. Why do you think experiential learning is so important?

When it comes to learning there is no substitute for experience. Only by seeing, feeling, touching (and smelling) the changes taking place on the ground can leaders connect the dots and make better informed business and investment decisions. Experiential learning offers rare insights into future markets, customers and business opportunities and by putting their leadership abilities to the test in a real world situation participants develop an appreciation of the skill sets required to lead in rapidly changing environments. Experiential learning also helps participants understand through practical situations the importance of empathy – the ability to feel what others feel – when doing business and leading teams.

As economic and political power shifts from West to East, how will a new balance be achieved? Will the East start to dominate?

How a new balance will be achieved is the billion dollar question and remains to be seen but from a quick scan through the global news headlines one can clearly see that politically, militarily and especially economically, we are moving into a new, multi-polar world. This “new world order” is emerging after half a century of American dominance and two centuries before that of British and European supremacy. Hopefully, no one country or region will “dominate” in the future as the most critical challenges we face today are global in nature and will require the East and West to come together to surmount.

One recent example of balance being restored by the increasing influence of developing countries in the East is the establishment of the BRICS bank, which comes after many years of protest from developing nations who argued they did not have enough say in how financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank were deploying their capital. Expect many more initiatives like this to come out of Beijing, Delhi and Jakarta in the years ahead.

GIFT has carried out many programs in different provinces in China from 2006 to 2012. Who were these programs targeting, and what values did you bring to the local communities?

Of the 36 Global Leaders Programs (GLP) GIFT has conducted, one third have featured experiential field projects in China. These projects were run in collaboration with local Chinese public and private sector partners who benefited from having a group of international executives develop business and strategy recommendations for them at no cost.

China projects have ranged from cotton production in Shanxi to private elderly healthcare in Sichuan. One of the criteria GIFT uses when selecting projects and partners is to ensure that the business model they are trying to launch or scale-up has positive social and/or environmental impact as well as being commercially viable. A recommendation that is often included in the final report is to make the business model more inclusive by promoting co-ownership with key stakeholders and in some cases communities throughout the value chain. This not only improves livelihoods in communities but also mitigates many of the risks associated with multi-stakeholder engagements and makes the business model more robust and sustainable in the long run.

Are there any new programs tailored for China in the near future? If so, can you briefly introduce the purposes and focuses of these new initiatives?

We actually just completed a field project in Gansu province which saw 24 executives from 8 countries and 10 organizations produce recommendations for a leading local agribusiness to scale up its sales volume tenfold to achieve revenues of RMB 1.3 billion by 2020. This company is active in alfalfa cultivation which has many social and environmental benefits such as increasing farmers’ incomes and preventing desertification in one of China’s least developed provinces.

We will have another project in China in January, but as it is a customized program I cannot share the details just yet! GIFT is planning to be more active in mainland China in the near future, not only in terms of field projects for the GLP but also by offering seminars and shorter programs for current and future Chinese leaders which draw upon the GLP curriculum and methodology. Watch this space!

How important is philanthropy in the work that GIFT does?

While there is undoubtedly an important role in society for philanthropy, charity and grassroots change this is not GIFT’s focus at all. We believe that solutions to most development challenges in the region must be business-driven and commercially viable if they are to be effective and sustainable in the long-run. On the topic of philanthropy, we would argue that it is far more important how an individual or organization makes their money than how a small fraction of that money is spent through charity or CSR activities.

What did you learn during your time at CKGSB that you are currently putting into practice?

I came into the MBA from an entrepreneurial background as a partner in a food and beverage company so getting a better understanding of the theory behind the practice was very helpful. Today I spend a lot of time before, during and after our programs assessing the viability of new business models and the exposure I gained during my time at CKGSB to the various key elements of business, such as operations, finance, sales & marketing etc. has proved very useful.

What advice would you give to current CKGSB alumni to make the most of their time there?

Stay active and engaged throughout the program. Don’t remain silent. Ask a lot of tough questions of the professors, lecturers and guest speakers. The faculty at CKGSB and the visiting facilitators and speakers are all experts in their fields and students should make the most of the access they have to these individuals during their time there.

Step out of your comfort zone. Take electives and attend events and seminars that don’t appeal to you at first glance. You might be pleasantly surprised. Make an effort to get to know all your colleagues well; it is all too easy to spend 90% of your time interacting with only 5% of your classmates!

Think critically about the content being delivered in class and how it can be applied in the real world of business, government or civil society. Stretch yourself and think beyond current business models – ask how the knowledge gained through an MBA can be used to create new business and investment opportunities which address some of the most pressing socio-economic needs in Asia, like widening access to financial services, energy, education or healthcare.