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Student Life

Team Work

by Philip Cannon

At the beginning of their MBA journey, after team assignments during their first week, five EMBA students met for dinner at Hotel Zaza. During the meal, they stumbled across something unique about their team: they were all born and raised outside the U.S. — India, Italy, Norway, Taiwan and Tanzania — and all of them spoke English as a second language.

It was a revelation. “We’re as diverse as we can possibly be, culturally and professionally,” Panthini Patel said.

“It was clear immediately, we were a team with very interesting backgrounds,” Bamrom Jonathan said. “We all had a lot to share and became very close immediately. We couldn’t wait to bring our families together.”

How teams are born

In the Rice MBA, cohorts in each program are made up of five-to-six-person teams that stay together for two years. When creating teams, the student program office tries to balance the mix by:

  • Gender
  • Profession
  • Company
  • Background, so teams include an international or veteran student
  • Age, so all teams have the same average age

And then the work begins. For this diverse team of EMBA students, the work included food and family.

They met for dinners in different restaurants that represented each members’ culture, so the others could try new things. Stefano Capponi chose Fresco Cafe Italiano, not far from campus, on a Saturday after class.

“I’m from a big family where you have massive meals, spending hours at the table. And using the table to talk. The idea is that Italian food is simple and laid back but the ambiance is what creates the environment. That’s how I grew up.”

He wanted to show the richness of that life to his teammates. “Fresco is a small joint where you can’t make reservations; it’s always packed; there’s no table service, and you bring your own wine. When I brought the team, they were surprised by the environment. Like, what is this place? It’s not high end. But after the initial shock, they loved the food and the feeling. We stayed for three hours. It was great.”

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Classroom conversations

Dean Peter Rodriguez always says diverse teams make the best decisions. And the global perspective in the EMBA classrooms is deepened by its students’ career and cultural experiences.

“It’s a huge benefit to have international participation. It allows the class to learn about how certain business concepts have materialized in various countries and across borders,” Haavard Oestensen said. “In a recent session on macroeconomics, while we were covering international trade, our classmate Larry Rubin was able to share his experience with US-Mexico trade relations from the perspective of his appointment as chairman of The American Society of Mexico. Our classroom sometimes feels like a UN meeting.”

Tsenghui (Leo) Sung added that “the concepts we learn in the classroom are good; the experience and ideas we share are from real life and practical to our day-to-day activities in work.” But it’s the different viewpoints that deepen their studies. “The team is open to discussion and sharing experiences and ideas.”

Personal gains

Of course, the chemistry within a team is a huge benefit to the MBA experience. And setting a tone was intentional from the beginning. Bamrom kicked it off with a pool party at his house. “We have family events with our team where we try different cuisines and share precious moments,” he said. “We’re building lifetime friendships and looking forward to what the future brings.”

Panthini and her husband made an Indian dinner from scratch. “We met in the front yard. The kids played basketball and rode bikes in the neighborhood. We made so many dishes — four to five different curries, vegetables — even though Stefano doesn’t like spicy food. For me, it means so much to show them that I care about them.”

Connections to classmates are what a small program is all about. Building and expanding your network will serve you beyond the two years on campus.

Meet the Team

Tsenghui (Leo) Sung

Leo is the senior director of business development and program management at Foxconn Industrial Internet (Fii). He hails from Taiwan and speaks Mandarin.

Panthini Patel

Now the director of global strategic accounts at Emerson, Panthini was born in India and lived there until the age of 10. She grew up speaking Gujarati and Hindi.

Haavard Oestensen

Haavard is the Vice President of Growth at Kongsberg Digital, was born and raised in Norway and speaks Norwegian.

Stefano Capponi

Transitioning between jobs after 15 years in the oil industry, Stefano is from Italy and speaks Italian.

Bamrom Jonathan

Bamrom moved to the U.S. for college at 17 and is now the vice president of pharmacy strategic initiatives at Centene Corporation. He grew up in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, is fluent in Kiswahili.

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