Thunderbird students hone global mindset through Global Challenge Lab

ASU Thunderbird students who participated in the school's Global Challenge Lab pose for a group photo.

Thunderbird students (from left to right) Ji Shen, Brittney Fullop, Lindsey Roberson, Christopher Jones, Brianna Stafford and Lisa Patel pose for a photo outside the school's headquarters before traveling to their Global Challenge Lab project site in Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management


Inspired by what she had learned as a recent graduate at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, Kelly Molera decided to use her summer to get more experience with an applied approach to learning — that is, learning by doing. 

Molera, who graduated from the Master of Global Management program, along with a team of other like-minded Thunderbird students, traveled to London to attend the school's Global Challenge Lab

The tailored, hands-on learning experience enables students to apply course material to real-world, real-time organizational challenges. Through the lab, Molera and her student-led team worked for an independent investment bank with the goal of gaining a foothold in the London market. Their team worked to identify the firm’s key differentiators and the best ways to convey findings throughout the client and investor acquisition processes.

“It is rare to have such an inside look at a company as a student. I learned how nonlinear life could be, both in a business sense and a 'people' sense,” Molera said. “The scope of my GCL project changed many times as new discoveries were made and new ideas were formed, and no consulting project is predictable. Dealing with others is also never predictable, but a business’ human element is something very special.”

Thunderbird’s Global Challenge Lab is a capstone program that involves team-based, client-facing, project-driven consulting experiences. Teams of five to six Master of Global Management candidates spend a semester working on the lab in a hybrid approach, where students work both from campus and spend three weeks on-site with a client in an advanced or emerging market.

The students then create deliverables tailored to the client’s business needs and work to provide sophisticated data and market analysis, strategy recommendations and plans for sustained growth. Thunderbird students are charged with all aspects of the consulting process, including team leadership, client management and producing results that will make a difference for the client organization.

“For Kelly’s project, she had the chance to work with a great Thunderbird partner, a London-based venture capital firm," said Todd Taylor, Thunderbird professor and faculty mentor for Molera’s Global Challenge Lab. "Kelly and her team integrated very well with the firm’s team. She impressed the firm’s leadership so much that they made her an offer of full-time employment at the close of the project. She accepted the offer and currently works for them, in London, as an analyst.”

The Global Challenge Lab offers graduate students the opportunity to work at an organization or business and experience different cultures’ business practices and how to lead worldwide. The real-world experience enables students to learn how to connect and work with people across countries and across cultures.

All full-time Master of Global Management students participate in the six-credit lab, during which they work full-time with a client in an international or domestic location. The program is also a three-credit elective for students in the Executive Master of Global Management and Master of Leadership and Management programs, where it is a one-week immersive experience on-site at the client location.

People sitting on a beach with drinks and smiling at a camera.

Thunderbird students (from left to right) Melissa Ballesteros, Shi Chi Lin, Talia Williams and David DeBaggis exploring their team's project location in Dubai, UAE. Photo courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management

"Thunderbird is unique in that we have a global network of alumni and organizations who want to empower our young professionals to advance sustainable and equitable prosperity worldwide. When I first started at Thunderbird, the Global Challenge Lab was optional for students and had additional costs. Now, and without raising tuition prices, GCLs are included in our base tuition for our MGM program, and every student gets the opportunity to have this transformative experience," said Sanjeev Khagram, Thunderbird director general and dean.

"Our Global Challenge Lab connects students with partner organizations to train students with future-ready skill sets, what we now call present-ready. By the end of their graduate program, our students have gained the experience needed to succeed in their future careers and in any community across the globe."

Molera continues to work in London and asserts that the skills she learned during her Global Challenge Lab experience translate seamlessly into her new career.

“Working on a team and finding ways that all team members' strengths can complement each other, especially in a team of people as beautifully diverse as Thunderbirds are, is important in any team setting,” she said.

Molera hopes to continue to gain experience working in a different country and, ultimately, dreams of helping shatter the glass ceiling for women in business, particularly in finance.

Kate Robertson, director of the Thunderbird Global Challenge Lab, describes how the Global Challenge Lab immerses students in a global working environment.

“It is not uncommon for GCL teams to have students from three or more countries working with clients that also come from multiple countries,” she said. “Projects may also have an international focus, such as marketing an existing product into a new region or improving a multinational corporation’s processes in a certain geography. Regardless of the project, students operate outside of their comfort zone and return with a better understanding of what it really means to do business in a global context.”

People seated at a conference table in a meeting.

A team of Thunderbird Global Challenge Lab students meet with clients in Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management

Global Challenge Lab projects focus on cutting-edge Fourth Industrial Revolution themes. Thunderbird students are connected with a faculty mentor to help master communication and collaboration to achieve real-world results, giving students a robust upper hand as they enter the job market.  

“The GCL provides the opportunity for students to experience different cultures in a ‘lived and business experience,’ and thus enhancing a global mindset without borders; that’s Thunderbird's mantra," said Professor of Practice Monica Kerretts-Makau, academic director of Thunderbird's Center of Excellence in sub-Saharan Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

"For me, as a faculty based in the continent of Africa at Thunderbird’s regional Center of Excellence in Kenya, it provides an opportunity to break the stereotypes and begin to expose student consultants to ‘doing business in Africa’ and their understanding of the many issues that shape business growth, profitability and sustainability.”

The Global Challenge Lab offers projects that are win-win propositions, creating value for companies and providing a unique, professional learning experience for students. It delivers the expertise and support of Thunderbird faculty combined with dynamic and versatile young professionals who apply modern global management practices and principles.

Student-driven strategic consulting engagements have aided Fortune 500s, small and medium enterprises, social enterprises, nonprofit organizations, governments and foundations in over 30 countries on five continents. Past clients come from all over the world, including UberEats in Mexico City, Mexico; Siginon Aviation in Nairobi, Kenya; Banco Davivienda in Bogotá, Colombia; Smuckers in Ohio, USA; and Evergreen Labs in Ho Chi Min, Vietnam. 

Other students in the lab were able to travel to the Netherlands last summer to work with the client EQUINIX, a digital infrastructure company. Steph Swor, global account manager for the company, says she would host a Global Challenge Lab every year if possible.

“Students are more senior than their experience would indicate and have tremendous drive. Their ability to understand the ask and deliver it in such a short time was impressive,” Swor said.

"Some clients compare their teams’ deliverables to those produced by top consulting firms,'' Roberston said. “Many say they are on (a) par with or better than what they’ve received working with experienced consultants.”

Group of people pose for a photo in front of a sign that reads "Global Challenge Lab."

Thunderbird students (from left to right) Victor Oleynik, Lola Algibez-Flores, Dawson Dobbelaire and Yelena Stanisic after presenting their Global Challenge Lab project summary to the Thunderbird student body. Photo courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management

More recently, Thunderbird student Ana Paula Chavarry Pizzorno traveled to Mexico City to work with Scotiabank.

“Scotiabank is a global bank with a footprint in different countries; specifically, we worked with the Mexico City branch within the metropolitan area and were immersed in the culture, with clients, and had to learn many things from the get-go,” she said. “For future teams, think of everything you’ve already learned at Thunderbird and apply those skills and knowledge to create the best recommendation for your client. Understand what your clients want and what they need, and how to deliver something that will be relevant for their work today.”

Thunderbird designed the Global Challenge Lab as an inclusive learning experience where graduate students and clients worldwide and in local industries have opportunities to explore business practices and new strategies. Students develop and deliver data-driven insights informed by prominent Thunderbird professors and rigorous academic coursework designed for today’s rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected global economy.

Current Master of Global Management student Karan Bhasin is about to embark on his Global Challenge Lab capstone project and is staying in Phoenix to work with the Arizona Commerce Authority.

“Our main goal while on the GCL is to engage with industry experts to aid us in navigating avenues for implementing innovative water conservation practices across the private sector in Arizona,” he said. “We are most excited about creating a collaborative work environment that will propel us in achieving our deliverables.” 

Thunderbird’s Global Challenge Lab begins as a group of mostly strangers brought together to craft business strategies, create frameworks, develop expansion plans and integrate emerging technologies — all in an emerging industry or foreign country that most have never experienced. 

“Not only do students master a global mindset, but they are also able to share their experiences of leading across borders and connecting with others,” Robertson said. “The Global Challenge Lab is a meaningful way for any T-bird to explore new lands while creating an impact on a client’s future growth.”

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