MBA Journal: First Year Overview

Finding a Common Language


"I want to go to the Baquedano station," I said.

The woman on the other side of the glass looked at me, then pressed a button and said something through one of those drive-through-type speakers. The glass separating us may as well been a mile thick as opposed to the inch it was in reality.

We—meaning me and most of the rest of Team Phoenicia—were on our international study trip. We were in downtown Santiago, trying to negotiate the metro. We were on the hunt for lapis lazuli, the semiprecious stone that's found in few places in the world, and Chile is one of them. We were bound and determined to find some. The hotel in which we were staying was in the "New York" section of Santiago—meaning there was not a lot of Chilean culture to be had in the immediate vicinity. This predicated this little adventure.

We'd heard that the place to find lapis lazuli was a part of Santiago called Bellavista, which could be reached by taking a cab. But that wouldn't be immersing ourselves in the "real" Santiago. So off to the metro we went.

After the Tremors

We'd already had a taste of the "real" Santiago. We landed in the city a mere seven days after the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Chile on Feb. 27, 2010. There had been times when the trip was in doubt. But there we were, having been assured that Santiago was operating as business as usual.

While it was true that Santiago was open for business, subtle (and not so subtle) reminders of the earthquake were everywhere. On landing, we disembarked onto the tarmac and went through customs and immigration in a tent as the main airport building had been too damaged to be occupied. My very comfortable hotel room at the Intercontinental had an inch-wide crack in the wall. Bridges on the highways leading to and from the airport had two-foot-wide gaps that we crossed over thick metal plates. Facades of some of the buildings downtown were ruined; piles of rubble could be seen in the middle of streets in the poorer areas of town.

But the metro, among many other places in Santiago, was undamaged, and now, a few days after arrival, I was trying to explain to the ticket person behind the glass that I wanted a ticket to take the metro three stops down the line. It was during times like this that we were keenly aware that only five percent of Chileans speak English.

Uncomprehending Exchange

That I was standing in the ticket line at all was the result of the generosity of another metro worker, who had seen our clearly confused faces (I'm guessing it wasn't at all difficult to guess we were tourists) and with her limited English conveyed to us where we needed to buy a ticket.

The woman on the other side of the glass repeated what she had said. Even if I had understood Spanish, I'm not sure I would have understood what she said, because of the sound quality of the speaker.

"I don't understand you," I said, in English, clearly aware of our communication gap, knowing she didn't understand me. "I want to go to Baquedano," holding up three fingers. "Three stations away."

She sighed in exasperation, pulled out a piece of paper, wrote something on it, and held it up: 460. Ah, the language of numbers—a marvelous international language. She must have understood I wanted to go for three stops and that was the fare in Chilean pesos. (Alas, close, but not quite. I found out later that the fare for riding the metro is the same regardless of the distance you travel). "Yes!" I said and pulled out money.

After purchasing our tickets, the first guardian angel—who had been watching the scene at the ticket line—guided me by the elbow to the turnstiles, where she showed me how to process the ticket (I probably could have figured that out, but since I hadn't demonstrated a high level of competency to that point, I shouldn't argue).

Not So Authentic

"For Bellavista," she said, pointing to a sign, "Norte." Ah. When we got to the Baquedano station, we were to take the north exit. I smiled and told her gracias, the extent of my very limited Spanish.

I think it took longer for us to negotiate buying our tickets than it did for us to get to Bellavista. Once there, we found many stores, restaurants, and clubs. To our disappointment, many of the stores seemed to be geared solely to tourists. We wandered through the district, hoping to find something more authentic.

After some time, we came across an outdoor mall. Most of the others remained there to have a drink. Aidan and I, who had not yet found just the right pieces of lapis lazuli, kept wandering. We took side streets and back alleys, and suddenly we came across it: a street full of local restaurants and clubs bustling with customers, with nary a tourist in sight. This was the Santiago we had been looking for.

Key Cultural Connection

Here we also found our lapis lazuli. In a small store with a very helpful saleswoman (who also blessedly spoke English), Aidan bought a necklace for his fiancé, and I found earrings for my stepdaughters. The sales person was delightful, recognized that we were American (I doubt that was difficult), and asked where we were from. Seattle, we explained.

"Ah! Kurt Cobain!" she exclaimed. I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised that the one cultural reference that Seattle is known for—at least for that Chilean woman—was through music, yet another international language. After all, even in Santiago, there were many Starbucks to be found.

I learned a lot of things on the trip (which also took us to Buenos Aires), probably as much interacting with locals as I did on company visits and at lectures. I learned about the developing economy in Chile, balancing strong growth with major environmental challenges.

I learned about microfinance. Before going to Chile, I had heard that microfinancing provided small entrepreneurs with small loans at high interest rates—Banigualdad, the microfinance company in Chile we visited, charged the equivalent of 36 percent interest annually. What I learned was that the 36 percent, while high, was necessary because of the individual attention; loans are extended in groups of 20, and the recipients of those loans meet weekly with their loan officer to provide support and give updates on progress as well as to make regular payments. Every loan officer dealt with only 20 loans at a time. There are not many banks in the U.S. that can make that statement. By taking a loan out though Banigualdad, these fledgling business owners—mostly women—were getting not only money to start a business, but also a support group and a business and social network.

I learned—based on the Baquedano experience, as well as others, including a stroll in the arts and crafts fair in Buenos Aires—that no matter how different people are, if you try hard enough, odds are you will find a common level of understanding, whether it's through numbers, currency, or Kurt Cobain.

You can learn a lot in business school.

Megan_lum
Megan Lum is enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business and is expected to graduate in 2010. Halfway through the program and as a result of the economic downturn, Lum lost her job as a senior environmental manager at Weyerhaeuser Company—not to mention the funding for her education. But she found another job at Pacific Gas & Electric Company in San Francisco, where she's been since January 2010. Lum has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Windsor in Canada.

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