You can read about something all you want, but it’s not the same as experiencing it first-hand.
Not that many people have the chance to visit Cuba, much less to explore its economic models. It was this unique opportunity that attracted second-year Wharton San Francisco student Chidi Nwabude to choose Cuba for his Global Business Week trip.

Experiencing a Country in Transition

Being in Cuba today, you get the sense that there is a game about to start. There is a lot of anticipation and everyone is excited. No one knows what will happen, but they can’t wait for the new tomorrow. Cubans are very optimistic about the upcoming changes.

I wanted to get first-hand knowledge about Cuba, as it is a country in transition. I also wanted to experience Cuba’s culture. I wouldn’t have gone there on my own, so Global Business Week was a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and see how people live in Cuba.

Throughout the week, we experienced both the private and government sectors and participated in cultural tours. We began our visit at the U.S. Embassy, where a representative framed the Cuban experience from the eyes of an American. He helped us understand what is going on in Cuba now. For example, the goal of the Cuban government is to grow the economy, without widening the wealth gap.

Another highlight was a talk with a Cuban professor about diversity in Cuba. There are several ethnic groups represented in Cuba, and I was interested to learn about race relations. Hearing about the history of those groups and their roles in Cuban culture was very informative. The professor explained how there were racial tensions prior to the Castro era, but that the government has made it illegal to discriminate. Today, the country seems to have better race relations than many others in the region. In addition, she discussed the role of women in Cuban society. Women make up a high percentage of the professional workforce, but there aren’t enough women in leadership positions.

I also found our visit to the port fascinating. We met with the port director, who talked about what it takes to run a business in Cuba as well as the challenges and opportunities. We learned how Cuba is modernizing and expanding a port to accommodate super-size ships from around the world. Afterward, students talked about whether Cuba may be a good investment opportunity. If things go well as the U.S. opens relations with Cuba, it could be a great opportunity as long as you can navigate the government bureaucracy.

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Comparing Business Practices

We saw significant differences in business practices in Cuba. In the U.S., if you want to set up a business and run it, you can do that. In Cuba, almost everything is owned by the government. Things seem more scripted, as everyone is trying to follow the government line. We visited government-run hotels and restaurants, which were less efficient in comparison to the privately-owned ones. We also learned about the complexities of dealing with a dual currency system. There are many obstacles when it comes to doing business in Cuba, but also many opportunities.

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Shared Firsthand Experience

Spending a week in Cuba without the Internet really facilitated bonding. I discovered new things about my West Coast classmates – like that one student is a Navy pilot and another has a PhD in chemical engineering. We also met many East Coast students on the trip. I’m currently talking to one of the Philadelphia students about some shared business interests in the health care space. A group of us from both coasts decided to return to Cuba after graduation to experience the country again.

You can read about something all you want, but it’s not the same as experiencing it firsthand. The global trips validate what you’ve learned so far in the program and challenge you to adapt to new environments. This was a very unique learning experience and a valuable part of the Wharton curriculum.

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Posted: October 17, 2016

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