LMU EMBA Virtual Indigenous Immersion
By Kelly Watson, part-time Lecturer and Executive in Residence at the Loyola Marymount University College of Business Administration.
We’re pleased to share this reflection on an experiential learning approach that became an inspired response to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The LMU EMBA students embraced the use of Virtual Reality technology and connected with Indigenous and under-served community leaders as a model for conscientious international business expansion.
Loyola Marymount University is an GRLI institutional partner, under the leadership of Dean Dayle Smith. Watson can be reached at email@example.com.
Solving the challenge of travel and meeting restrictions
The global pandemic created a difficult set of challenges for us as business educators, particularly since our programs traditionally include international travel: Everybody had to stay home. Students were already subjected to long work days online and many operated in crisis-mode as they struggled to save their businesses. Needless to say, we were all less than enthusiastic about spending long portions of classroom time in Zoom as well.
So, together with my colleagues at LMU, we planned a different approach for our annual international capstone project experience in 2021. Because we could not travel internationally, we focused our business projects on solving Native American community problems.
Our students’ capstone project was to understand significant community enablement challenges such as housing, education, healthcare, and infrastructure that were standing in the way of building a viable and sustainable economy. Then the students were to develop a full-fledged and operational (“shovel-ready”) business plan for their concepts, bringing together all of the learning they have gained so far in the EMBA program — Finance, Operations, Marketing, Human Resources and Sustainability — with a for-profit, triple bottom line solution (People, Planet, Profit) to the problem they identified.
Through a combination of website inquiries, emails, and cold calls to various Native American tribal offices as well as referrals from fellow Jesuit institutions and contacts, we were able to solicit interest from a wide range of speakers. We shared our student project topics and mission for the endeavor, and were surprised at the level of interest. (We did have to be patient in waiting for replies from people who were also dealing with the pandemic in their lives.)
To create a more immersive experience, we utilized AR/VR technology to travel “virtually.” In doing so, we stumbled upon a previously under-utilized opportunity for global leadership — consideration of Indigenous and under-served community engagement as a model for conscientious international business expansion and the use of virtual technologies in the classroom.
Native Americans as a proxy for “International”
Indigenous communities are often thought of as outside of markets and not a relevant part of the business context. At LMU College of Business, our mission is to advance knowledge and develop business leaders with moral courage and creative confidence to be a force for good in the global community. In this way, this project inspired students to utilize the power of the marketplace to solve systemic problems and be more inclusive of all people. The Native American context provided an excellent domestic opportunity to experience a global challenge and take local responsibility for making a difference.
We discovered that many of the core competencies we teach during traditional international business engagements applied in our conversations with Indiginous leaders. Students learned that the kind of knowledge needed to open a business in a new place goes beyond the language spoken, to considerations about the political environment, local labor laws, and social and cultural conventions.
The Indigenous community leaders and members we connected to offered us great opportunities for learning. First, the market size of Native American communities in the United States is similar to many international locations such as Panama, Kenya, Croatia, and Lebanon. Second, the cultural context is similarly diverse to other international locations. There are multiple unique languages, rich traditions, and a long, complex history. Third, recognized tribal areas are unique, self-governing nations with their own laws and business traditions. Fourth, the market is evolving and growing, similar to those in the usual developing economies we study. So, as a template for “international expansion,” the Indigenous community context fits the bill.
Furthermore, since business schools have not historically reached out to Native American communities for learning partnerships, Tribal Leaders are not “burnt out” with speaking to student groups. This meant we were able to get access to significant influencers and a wide range of perspectives. We brought speakers and interviewees from all over the world to our virtual immersion, using Zoom and cell phone connections. Finally, progressive Indigenous relationships is not an area where the United States leads the world. Therefore, it was an opportunity for students to learn some best practices from other nations such as Canada and New Zealand.
At a deeper level, though, we noticed the significant impact of this exchange on our students. They connected emotionally with the tribal members in a way we had not seen in previous cohorts. There was more engagement and ownership with their project recommendations. We were able to focus the students on the longer-term, cyclical impact of business decisions. We also insisted that profitability — in addition to many others — be a goal in order to ensure long-term project sustainability. This created an important tension for students: The balance between community impact, people, the environment, and profits. For many, this was a paradigm shift in their thinking as they struggled to integrate what they know of traditional business and non-profit objectives and tools.
Use of AR/VR technology as a replacement for travel
Another outcome was our exploration of AR/VR technology. We deployed Oculus Quest Goggles to each student and faculty member. This allowed us to convene in virtual space together several times a day during the immersion. We were also able to experience 360 videos, which immersed us into various virtual field trip locations around the world, including indigenous communities and markets in Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and in South America. The robust sights, sounds, vibrant colors, and engaging people were brought to each student’s headset in a way that would have been extremely difficult to replicate even if we were able to travel safely and affordably. We included some hands-on activities as well, including altar-building and a cooking class, led by Native American experts. While these physical assignments were on Zoom and not VR, the movement and interactivity yielded better student engagement compared to non-interactive Zoom sessions.
We set up a YouTube channel with various trips to Tanzania, India, New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, the Amazon, among others. We also held cell phone interviews with tribal members in Honduras and Tanzania. Our speakers included leaders in North America from Mohawk, Osage, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe and other nations. A highlight experience for students was learning from members of the Lummi Tribe in Washington state over Zoom to learn about the plight of salmon fishing and the threats to their way of life.
Flourishing outcomes born out of constraint
Our students discovered that Indigenous thinking is more holistic and cyclical than that of Western culture, particularly in business. Hearing from communities that have survived attempted annihilation helped put our thinking about business sustainability into a larger context. It was exactly the right environment to foster responsible global leadership. There is more opportunity in this space, we feel, for similarly transformative student experiences. Using AR/VR could also enhance this area of study as well. It can make accessible regions of the world where travel is difficult, unsafe, expensive or culturally taboo. However, focusing on Indigenous people in this way also requires institutions to be brave in the face of the “consumerism” of much of business education where sexy international trips can be more boondoggle than educational experience.
In closing, school leaders must challenge themselves beyond the mindset that underserved communities must be relegated to charity solutions or that business must always be big business to have a big impact. We hope to see more business schools around the world similarly include Indigenous communities in their business projects in the future. We were interested to see that Melbourne Business School announced the new Dilin Duwa Centre for Indigenous Business Leadership in August 2021. We would love to hear and learn from more examples from the GRLI community.
Each of the four projects that our students explored provided rich opportunities for proposing for-profit, triple bottom line solutions. Students chose a publicly-traded company, for access to financial statements, and did not actually work with the companies they studied.
Tesla — Solar Energy on reservations to potentially provide free power by selling excess back to power companies
Hilton/Curio — Eco Tourism on reservations to showcase Native American culture and the importance of sustainability
Manpower — Hands on Business Education and placement services on reservations to help empower entrepreneurs and students seeking business careers
Pulte Group — Creative low cost housing solutions on reservations, utilizing local talent (build-your-own housing) and leveraging sustainable & efficient design
Kelly Watson is a Managing Partner of Orange Grove Consulting: Gender Equity and Inclusion Experts and a Part-time Instructor in the Executive MBA Program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Kelly is also co-author of two books — The Next Smart Step: How to Overcome Gender Stereotypes and Build a Stronger Organization and The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family, and Life.
Kelly and has spent more than 25 years as an accomplished operations and organizational development consultant. Prior to consulting, Kelly served as Vice President, Marketing for Telecom New Zealand USA and has held other senior operational roles. Kelly holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada and an MBA from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Denver. Kelly is also a Recreation & Parks Commissioner for the City of El Segundo, CA. Outside of work, Kelly helps women and girls reach their full potential through coaching, refereeing, and playing soccer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.