For many HBS students, the FIELD Global Immersion is the seminal class of the HBS experience. Broken into two parts over the first year, the goal of the course is to stretch students’ emotional intelligence and apply the business learning of the RC in an international context.
A few months before departure, the list of 15 destination countries is announced, presentations are held on each, and students rank order their preferences. The goal is to send each student to a country they have no prior experience with. Once assigned to a country (in my case, Helsinki, Finland – my top choice), students are assigned to six-person teams, each curated from different sections to possess a diverse set of professional and personal backgrounds. Each team is then paired with a local company, non-profit, or government institution and given a consumer-facing business challenge to solve using the using the process of “Design Thinking” made popular by IDEO.
In college, I studied abroad in two different European countries, and as a military officer deployed throughout East Asia and Central America. I felt confident in my international exposure, but was excited by the chance to help an international company with a live business challenge. My teammates include two female MIT engineers, three consultants, five different nationalities – and me. Our project was with the PE-backed Finnish outdoor children’s apparel company Reima and centers around finding the best consumer use case for their new “ReimaGo” line of wearable activity trackers.
Day 0 – Friday – Departure Day
Today is the final day of class in the RC year. Our TEM Professor, the former President of Babson College and COO of both L Brands and Au Bon Pain, delivers a stirring valedictory about the keys to success from his own experience in entrepreneurship. Our BGIE professor, a former White House Economist, ends with a mini-case on ways activist business leaders influence policy change. Both classes end with the traditional student-performed “roast” of the professor, poking fun at their quirks and lampooning some of the funnier things said in section. I perform as our BGIE professor.
We head to the airport for a 9:30PM departure from Boston Logan bound for Helsinki, Finland via Reykjavik, Iceland. Inspired by our BGIE course, I re-read part of my international relations textbook from college and try to get some sleep. The earplugs and eye mask prove to be a lifesaver.
Day 1 – Saturday – Arrival Day
Having painlessly exited EU customs in Iceland, we simply walk out of the Helsinki Airport and find our guides waiting for us. It’s gray, windy, and snowing. I think of my wife – also an RC – currently on a plane to the warmer shores of Cape Town, South Africa. We get to the hotel late in the day and find our way to an Italian restaurant able to accommodate the 16 members of our party (there are 72 of us in Finland) in a private downstairs room. The fish is incredible.
Day 2 – Sunday – Vappu
The snow continues and so after our first Finnish Breakfast, we hit the museums. Today is also “Vappu,” one of the four biggest holidays of the year in Finland. Students from the surrounding universities descend along the Helsinki waterfront, and place a ceremonial white cap, the kind awarded to every Finnish high school graduate, on the head of a statue in the water fountain. From that moment on, the champagne corks pop, singing breaks out in the packed streets, and seemingly every Fin, young and old, dons the white hat they received at their college graduation.
Day 3 – Monday – Orientation / May Day
The weather turns absolutely beautiful as the Vappu celebrations continue for a second day. Businesses are closed as families head to the parks for picnics. All 72 HBS students head out of the hotel for a wilderness cooking class where we learn to smoke salmon and barbecue reindeer, before playing some traditional Finnish camping games. After a full day of outdoor fun, we return to Helsinki for a lesson in traditional Finnish folk dancing at the local performance hall, before a huge section dinner at a local restaurant.
Day 4 – Tuesday – Customer Interactions
We meet the CEO of our client company and her top leadership for breakfast at the hotel. We’ve been in contact with them over Skype for a few weeks refining the business problem, and they share final guidance on the direction they would like our project to take. After the meal, we split up into teams of two to interact with local Finnish consumers in parks and playgrounds to understand what pain points they encounter in children’s apparel and outdoor activity. We meet with new users of the ReimaGo technology to understand the value they derive from the product, and the ways they believe it can be improved.
Helsinki is home to four restaurants with one Michelin star and all are reasonably priced, especially given the high cost of lower-end restaurants in the city. I decide to explore one of them with some friends from my wife’s section. The dinner comprises 15-courses and lasts 4.5 hours.
Day 5 – Wednesday – Rapid Prototyping
Half our team visits a daycare center running a pilot of the ReimaGo product, while the rest of us demo our very own versions of the product and the iPhone app. We meet up at the mall to visit the Reima store to see how the products are displayed and advertised. After lunch, we bust out the post-its and start compiling the pain points we have observed, brainstorming ways to improve the ReimaGo product, and ideating entirely out-of-the box ideas that Reima can pursue to promote the “joy of movement” at the center of the company ethos. The Finns drink more coffee than another nationality in Europe, so our caffeine needs are satiated by the high-quality roasts they keep on tap.
We draw up some prototypes and immediately test them on some local Finnish MBA students who join us at the hotel for drinks. Their feedback is incredible. We mull it over a team dinner at another fabulous Finnish restaurant and present some initial ideas to our professor, herself an accomplished marketing executive, during evening office hours.