Colombia! The only risk is wanting to stay


Johnson students immerse themselves in the history, culture, and business of Colombia from March 16th to March 24th 2013

Anupama K. Umachandar, AMBA ‘13

by Anupama K Umachandar, AMBA ‘13

As a student of the accelerated one year MBA program here at Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, I decided to seize the opportunity and take advantage of at least one of the wonderful Johnson treks. Having never been to Latin America and knowing that the Colombia trek has been wonderfully executed many times before, it was an easy choice. The trek consisted of activities that allowed me to gain insights about the country’s business world (flower factory, beer plant), Government (Ministry of communication and Presidential Palace), Education (University of Los Andes) and Culture (Pedro Medina’s house; Day tour of Bogota; Social activities). After the intense 7day trek most students decide to take a weekend trip to one of the other cities (Cartagena or Medellin or Santa Marta or Leticia) before heading back to Ithaca. A unique feature of the Colombia trek is that Johnson students will work on a consulting project with students from the University of Los Andes (also known as Uniandes) for a company based in Bogota, Colombia.

Day 1 – Meet & Dine with Uniandes students at Andres Carne de Res – Bogotá, Colombia

Most of us arrived late night on Friday, rested well and kept ourselves busy on Saturday morning by visiting some recommended sites such as National Museum, the Botero Museum, and National Cathedral. Though we were spread across three different hotels, I was impressed that Johnson students were always committed to being on time for the all the meetings. We met our Uniandes teammates at the hotel lobby and went on our way to Andres Carne de Res in Bogota, a wonderful place to have begun one of the best cultural experiences of my life. After some delightful conversation, a scrumptious dinner, amazing dance and fantastic reggaeton music, we all decided to call it a night

Day 2 – Tour of Bogotá: Gold Museum, Monserrate and Bolivar square– Bogotá, Colombia

Sunday was a fun day that began with two wonderful tour guides who took us first to the Gold Museum. Owned by the Bank of the Republic, the gold museum has the biggest selection of pre-Hispanic gold work in the world. We were split into two groups thus making the tour guides’ life easier. The museum housed thousands of artifacts with the display setting divided into themes. The second floor is where we started our museum tour, and it contained pieces that relate to the people of pre-Hispanic Colombia. The third floor was made up of details of shamans and their offerings

Our next stop was at Monserrate, a mountain on which the 17th century church of the Fallen Lord (El Señor Caído) is located at 3,152 meters above the sea level. I was excited to be taking the aerial tramway on our way up to the mountains and the funicular (cable railway) back down. Since this hill was both a tourist destination and a pilgrim site we split up and walked around in groups, took pictures and attended the ending bit of the Sunday mass.

The Bolívar Square followed Monserrate. This square is a prominent structure in Colombian history and features a statue of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader who played a key role in Latin America’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire. The square is used as a site for where people voice their opinions in the form of calm demonstrations. Since it started to rain heavily, we wrapped up the tour 30minutes earlier than planned. Once we got to our hotels everyone planned the rest of the night based on his/her level of interest and energy. It was critical that we were ready for Monday’s meeting with Uniandes management and most importantly, our assigned company representatives.

Day 3 – Education: Meet Company representatives and Work on project at UniandesCulture: An evening of Colombian culture at Pedro Medina´s House – Bogotá, Colombia

Our educational experience in Colombia started bright and early at the University of Los Andes. Students from the university met us at the entrance and guided us to the assigned rooms where we were introduced to the company representatives. The rest of the day consisted of project related work (discussions, planning and data collection). Our project was to come up with a marketing plan for a non-profit company that was involved in the healthcare industry. At 5pm, we left the campus and headed out to meet Pedro Medina.

Pedro Medina is a Johnson alumnus who has been kind enough to host the students at his fascinating house which is located an hour away from Uniandes campus. Pedro and his team of hosts had prepared an authentic Colombian meal with items that had been cultivated in his gardens. Since the bus cannot drive through the muddy roads up to Pedro’s house we were taken up in jeeps. While the energetic few took to foot, the rest of us were happy to get an adventurous ride. Pedro delivered a gripping speech about the Colombian culture, his background as an ex-McDonald executive who now runs a non-profit organization, his personal life and his view of Colombia’s past, present and future.

Day 4 – Corporate: Flower factory- Bogotá, Colombia

While the below pictures capture the beauty of the flowers at the Flores San Juan sa flower factory, here are a few facts presented to us during the welcome speech by the plant manager. The main priority that the company is working on is cutting costs. The plant has fixed contracts with agents which help them sell large volumes of flowers. Majority of the employees at the facility are single mothers, making these flower factories the largest employer of this particular female segment. Second to Holland in flower export, Colombia exports about 77% of its production to USA. Flowers are planted to bloom when the need for them is the most (e.g. need for roses in US rises tremendously during Valentine’s Day). Since it takes 25 days for the product to reach the US stores, there are special conditions that need to be maintained during transportation. The factory we visited grew only carnations and roses. The biggest challenge that the factory faces is maintaining of employee motivation and efficiency. In order to eliminate this issue, the company has been conducting motivational sessions, providing day transport so workers can spend a few hours with family during the day, and providing a competitive pay structure.

Day 5 – Government: 1. Tour of Casa de Nariño 2.The Ministry of CommunicationsEducation: Team Presentation Preview to Professor

The visit to the Casa de Nariño left us speechless. Since we were already registered for the Presidential House tour, we got off our bus and followed our guide Jorge. Jorge was from Medellin and had joined the army 3 years ago. Similar to the White House in USA, Casa de Nariño is the home and workplace of the President of Colombia. The building was designed by Gaston Lelarge and the traditional changing of the Palace Guard happens every day. The house is filled with vases and objects that represent collaboration between Colombia and other countries.

Meeting the Minister of information technology and communications proved to be the perfect setting to learn about how technological advances will help Colombia decrease poverty, increase jobs and thereby improve competitiveness. By expanding internet usage and developing technology, the Interactive Communication Technology (ICT) plan is intended to enhance the economy. Though there are a number of barriers to this strategy, the ministry is ready with its basic 5 principle plan, and they are on their way to attaining their goals.

The evening ended with us having to provide a preview of our final presentation to the Johnson professor, Wesley Sine. It was a long night as there were changes that we all had to make to our decks based on professor’s feedback. Nevertheless, the work was completed and we were looking forward to the beer factory visit.

Day 6 – Beer factory tour and Dinner at Club Colombia

Bavaria is a subsidiary of SABMiller. The company makes beer and non-alcoholic malt beverages. After a quick presentation by the quality manager, we were taken on a plant tour. We were able to taste the different malts that were used to produce the wide range of beers. As we walked around looking funny in our blue shower caps (to ensure hygiene within the plant), we noticed that there were fewer employees and a lot more of sophisticated machines. There was also a lot of shutdown time due to issues in efficient running of the machines. We were told that the company is working on its Just-in-time (JIT) and productivity numbers. The hour meeting with the chief financial officer at the Bogota enlightened us on its financial results and recent acquisition. The firm’s biggest concern that Bavaria is looking to solve right now is on how to encourage local customers to buy beer to take to their homes. Currently, customers buy beer when they are out socializing, but rarely to take home as part of their grocery trip (like they do in USA) or when there is a national game etc.

Our Thursday ended with a classy dinner at Club Colombia after which we all went dancing. Friday was almost here and we were all going to go our separate ways for the weekend.

Day 7 – Final project presentation at University of Los Andes

Project presentations began at 9am and lasted until 12 with each team getting a 30minute slot. Our audience was a mixed bunch: the company representatives, faculty and students. It was a great experience interacting with the students from Uniandes and also getting the opportunity to work with an organization in Colombia. The hands-on project format resulted in a deeper understanding of Colombian corporate culture and practices.Our team (see pic below) provided some breakthrough solutions to the client, making the project a success. It was exciting to be able to study the impact of the Latin American market, government and developments on the healthcare industry.

The official last day ended with some of us flying to other Colombian cities and few students staying back in Bogota before heading to Ithaca. The two cities which interested most students for the weekend stay were: Cartagena and Medellin. I loved the city of Cartagena with all its history and nearby islands it had to offer. We booked an apartment via Airbnb, took a boat ride to the nearby island of Playa blanca, shopped for emeralds with the help of the professor, visited San Felipe de Barajas Castle, checked out the sunset from the city wall and once again relished the food (coconut rice, grilled fish, salted potatoes, cheesy arepas, fresh salad and flavorful meat. While we loved our Cartagena side trip, some of the students made a trip to Medellin. Though not a beach city, Medellin has plenty to offer with regards to nature, coffee, party and beautiful people.

My first time in Latin America (LA) was a success and I realized that the statement, ‘The risk of wanting to stay in Colombia’, made a lot of sense. This trip has deepened my knowledge of business, education, culture and social environment. I thank Professor Sine and his teaching assistant, Arkangel for creating a well-balanced trek. Now that I have had a peek into this beautiful region, I look forward to traveling there soon!!!