How Well Is HBS Internationalizing?

Ryo Takahashi, Editor-in-Chief

From journalist Thomas Friedman proclaiming that The World Is Flat to sociologist Anthony Giddens observing that in today’s world, “the local and global have become inextricably intertwined,” thought leaders seem to agree that globalization has brought an unprecedented level of social and economic integration at a dizzying pace.

An ever-globalizing world has had implications on how HBS defines its path forward in terms of admissions, teaching pedagogy, and research focus.

How has HBS responded to globalization, and what path does it envision to continue to attract and educate future leaders from all corners of the world?

Admissions focus

Every year, the admissions team at HBS must carefully select not only individual applicants but must also consider the composition of the student body. In the past decade, the student body has comprised roughly 30% to 35% international students.

“As we evaluate applications and conduct interviews, we’re learning what perspective someone might bring to the classroom,” says Chad Losee (MBA ’13), Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School.

“We are thinking about parts of the world that need to be represented in the classroom and regions where there should be better representation in the application pool.”

Welcoming international students has helped to serve a dual purpose. International students receive an opportunity to study abroad at HBS. In turn, they contribute towards fostering a deeper cultural understanding in the classroom by sharing their personal experiences and narratives.

“The Class of 2020 has one of the highest rates of international students in history,” says Losee.

While overall, international student representation at HBS has gotten stronger, underrepresented regions remain.

“One region where the applicant pool is still relatively small is from the continent of Africa. Just as with other regions of the world, we need students who understand Africa and can share that knowledge with their classmates.”

To help with the effort, the admissions team has recently launched “Life at HBS Chats,” where current students spend part of their holidays engaging prospective students in their home regions to share their experiences at HBS.

Global Research Centers

While HBS has prided itself on retaining its sole campus and heart of learning in Boston, the school nevertheless has a total of 14 research centers and offices spanning across the world.

“Historically, HBS faced an issue of not having a high percentage of cases on organizations outside of the US. This created a gap in knowledge both for faculty and students,” says Victoria Winston, Executive Director of the HBS Global Initiative.

Starting with its first domestic research center in Silicon Valley in 1997 and its first overseas research center in Hong Kong in 1999, HBS has expanded its research centers to become a formidable global network that helps faculty conduct research internationally, develop international cases, attract students from abroad, and remain in close contact with alumni.

“The initial focus was supporting faculty with their research,” reflects Victoria Winston. “Today, these centers serve a much broader purpose, which also includes programmatic and administrative functions.”

“From Mexico to Dubai, we now have 9 centers and 5 offices across the globe,” says Winston. Johannesburg, the latest addition in 2017 in partnership with the Center for African Studies, has helped HBS strengthen its focus in Africa.

“The Executive Directors of each region that we’ve been able to hire have been superb. The profile of leaders tends to be people who are HBS graduates, often very successful in their own area, and people who are extremely networked in their geography. These are individuals who are passionate about giving back to school,” says Winston.

Expanding teaching pedagogy

Field Global Immersion
The teaching methods at HBS have also continued to change in response to changing times. Professor Juan Alcacer, who has headed Field Global Immersion (FGI) since 2016, thinks that the introduction of FGI to the HBS curriculum is helping students develop the skills and global intelligence necessary to lead in a more global environment.

“The idea of FGI is to make students uncomfortable. We are sending them to a country that they have never been to before. We want students to step away from where they are coming from and explore something different,” he says.

One example is South Korea, a popular FGI destination for domestic students who have had little exposure to Asia. On one hand, South Korea preserves many cultural traditions, and yet in many respects it also has made great technological advances.

“Students arrive in Seoul, present their passports, put them in the machine, and the machine automatically starts talking to them in the language of their passport,” says Alcacer. “It gives students an idea of how sophisticated South Korea is.”

Running since 2012, FGI (formerly FIELD) has provided students an opportunity to experience economically, culturally, administratively, and geographically dissimilar norms from what they are used to.

“FGI also helps to serve a dual purpose,” adds Brian Kenny, HBS Chief Marketing & Communications Officer. “On one hand, you are internationalizing the students, and on the other hand, you are also internationalizing the faculty who accompany them. As a result, FGI has helped to raise the level of internationalization of the whole school,” he says.

HBS Online
One of the most recent changes in HBS’s teaching pedagogy has been the transition a few months ago from HBX to HBS Online, which places renewed focus on experiential case-based learning.

“It has to be real, it has to be active, and it has to be social,” says VG Narayanan, Chair of the MBA Elective Curriculum, who created the Financial Accounting course on HBS Online.

“Real means real-world companies. Even if I’m doing just debits and credits, I want to use a real-world company. Our classrooms are very dynamic. We are actively engaged in learning—we try to recreate this experience online.”

“We even have cold calls online,” he says.

HBS Online is one of the school’s latest bets to draw a wider audience by freeing prospective students from the constraints of geography, and by freeing HBS from the constraints of capacity.

“There are extremely smart people all over the world who find it difficult to come here physically to be on campus because they find it too disruptive to uproot themselves,” says Narayanan.

“Through HBS Online, we can reach these students, and there are strong complementarities with our MBA program. A student may experience HBS through HBS Online first and then may think that she wants to step foot on campus, and perhaps even do an MBA here,” he says.

“We’re going to light a fire under people and tell them, ‘You too can do this too.’ We want them to say, ‘I love the professors I met on HBS Online, I’ve done an HBS course, I did well, I can go there. I want to go study at HBS.’”

No outsider to globalization, HBS seems to be adapting and embracing change. The school’s teaching quality has remained uncompromisingly unchanged. However, connecting with HBS has gotten easier than ever before. So, dear reader, what are you waiting for?

The author would like to thank the following members of the faculty and administration at Harvard Business School for their input and comments on this article: Professor Juan Alcacer; Brian Kenny, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer; Chad Losee, HBS Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid; Professor VG Narayanan, Chair, MBA Elective Curriculum; and Victoria Winston, Executive Director, HBS Global Initiative.

Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20), originally from Japan, is a management consultant and writer. Prior to Harvard Business School, he worked as a Project Manager at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and was a Senior Associate at McKinsey & Company. Prior to these roles he worked at the Economist and the Japan Times. His writing has appeared in Time magazine, the Economist, the Japan Times, and the World Economic Forum, among other outlets. He received his B.A. in Economics (with Distinction) from The University of Tokyo and was also a Rotary Scholar to the London School of Economics.