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Real World 101 : Students Offer Advice to Actual Companies in Need of Solutions


Rolls-Royce, the British firm, needed help managing its booming information technology business. Levi Strauss & Co., the San Francisco-based apparel giant, wondered whether it should expand its distribution in Russia.

For help, the two firms turned to an unlikely source: graduate students at USC and UC Berkeley.

Through some unusual programs designed to expand their Pacific Rim expertise, the universities are offering to help companies solve some sticky management issues in exchange for letting their brightest business students test their academic theories in the real world.

"This is a way to give our students the chance to get the scar tissue, without which you can't say you've done international business," explained JoAnn Dunaway, director of international programs at Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

It's also, in some cases, free. USC's Marshall School of Business, which this year launched a Pacific Rim Education Program for all its MBA students, doesn't charge companies to be a subject of its four-week course, which is funded through a U.S. Department of Education grant.

At the Haas School, 60 MBA students a year are selected to participate in the international consulting program, which has traveled to Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Companies pay $25,000 to take part, which helps cover the program costs as well as support the business school. Eighty percent of the clients are U.S. firms, and the most common requests cover market entry, management reviews or, in the case of foreign firms, response strategies to increased international competition.

Both schools have numerous foreign students in their MBA programs and most of the participants speak a second language.

"I promise the companies they will get two or three well-thought-out ideas they can take away from this," said USC professor Ravi Kumar, the executive director of the Pacific Rim program, known as Prime. "Then, they can work on those ideas on their own."

In 1992, Rolls-Royce asked Kumar's students how it should handle its fast-growing information technology business. After evaluating the British company's operations, the students recommended subcontracting out that business so it could focus on producing jet engines.

Three years later, Rolls-Royce Aerospace did just that. While Kumar doesn't take credit for Rolls' multimillion-dollar decision, he believes his students might have helped prod the company in that direction.

"We were ahead of the curve in what the company was thinking about and what its problems were," he said.

Dunaway cited a large U.S. mining company that was having trouble with its Chinese joint venture partner. Her students visited the Chinese factory and pinpointed the problems in its accounting system, which stemmed largely from the way production costs were recorded.

"The fact that we have students who have cultural skills as well as language skills, they can almost act like a diplomat between the U.S. company and the local management," she said.


In 1994, the Berkeley students' evaluation of the Russian market so impressed Levi's senior executives that they flew the students to Geneva to present their findings to the firm's top managers. Many students have parlayed their hands-on knowledge into a good-paying job overseas or a position with an international focus at home.

Gerhard Renner, a USC student involved in an evaluation of Honeymex, Honeywell Corp.'s Tijuana subsidiary, said he has already talked to several venture capital companies looking at the Mexico market about summer internships.

"This has opened up some career possibilities that I wouldn't have thought possible," said Renner, an Austrian student working on a joint MBA and law degree at USC.

Evelyn Iritani can be reached via fax at (213) 237-7837 or e-mail at

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