Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Perspectives on Business and Life in Palestine – Why I Went to Bethlehem with my Online MBA Class

By Brian Nash

I am not a stereotypical online MBA student. I prefer to spend my admittedly limited free time going to punk shows or helping sea turtles rather than networking to find the next step in my career. That said, here I am, writing an article for Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Why? Because my Kelley Direct AGILE study abroad course in Bethlehem was easily one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I hope other current or prospective students can find their inspiration, challenge preconceptions and build a better world. 
Experiencing Palestine Beyond The Headlines

First and foremost, I want to address any potential criticism or concern about the university’s decision to embark on a trip to Palestine with a class of online MBA students. With an ominous wall slowly constricting one of the most important religious sites in the world and a contentious political climate, Bethlehem is clearly an area in flux. I can attest to the fact that nearly everyone that travelled to Bethlehem with the group had friends, family and strangers who questioned our thought process, and maybe even our sanity for choosing to do so.  I get it…the news portrays a less-than-flattering image of the entire region. However, what most people don’t realize is that there’s a huge majority of people in the region that couldn’t care less about the politics and religious zealotry, and are simply trying to live their lives peacefully. 

To me, that’s the core of the issue. I would rather focus on the current humanity of the situation, rather than get confined to debates steeped in centuries of dogma.  With this attitude in mind, from the moment I arrived in Palestine, I felt welcomed by the community, and needed by the company we were working with for the course. 

Coming Face-to-Face With the Reality in Palestine
While we had already completed some of our work for the client during the two-and-a-half-month span leading up to our arrival in Palestine, the initial bus ride into Bethlehem proved to be the beginning of a new type of education.  I fully admit that before we arrived, I had moments of frustration attributable to language barriers and the perception of the value of time.  However, as soon as we passed the security checkpoint at the enormous wall separating Palestinian-controlled land from Israel-controlled land, none of that mattered anymore.  We passed scores of houses, each equipped with giant black water vessels to help when the water was inevitably turned off by Israel.  Later I walked by children playing next to a cemetery, eager to take pictures. I saw bombed-out buildings that people abandoned, and I saw lots of trash. Quite simply, I saw signs of lost hope.  For this punk-kid-turned-MBA-student, those lyrics that meant so much to me started to match up to faces, personalities, and lives.  It was time to get to work.
Kids playing at the Gate of Palestine Cemetery

In Palestine, it’s TOUGH to get people to think beyond the present, and that’s completely understandable. With the threat of violence, annexation by Israel, or the normal fear of failure on the minds of most, few potential business owners are willing to risk their capital and good name to do something new, challenging, and beneficial for the future of the Palestinian people. While many of the local workers are dependent on the tourism industry, choosing to work in small family-owned souvenir shops or restaurants, the people my online MBA classmates and I worked with challenged the status quo, and pushed for something bigger. That’s about as punk as it gets! I was all in.

Packaging a Better Palestine

The client my team worked with is a leading printing, packaging and labeling company in Palestine. The company has outgrown its current facility, and its proximity to the aforementioned wall has proven to be a challenge. Nearby schoolchildren often throw rocks at the nearby wall gate, and Israeli guards are quick to reprimand them with tear gas bombs. This tear gas is a common nuisance, and on one occasion my team missed being gassed by only 20 minutes. Unfortunately, this is so common that workers there are immune to its effects. Furthermore, an ominous guard tower with armed personnel is always present in an attempt to intimidate anyone willing to approach the facility. Because of these deterrents, the company is looking to relocate to a much more client-friendly area in Bethlehem’s industrial district.
You think your company faces challenges?
I could not have been happier with our client’s passion and engagement. For an area that often chooses to ignore the future for a safer present, I was thrilled to hear their excitement when discussing their dream of being a top employer in Palestine. The company’s leadership team is dedicated to not only their current employees, but hiring, training, and rewarding a larger team as the company grows. I believe that we worked well together to identify areas to improve worker happiness and productivity, identify and collect on outstanding invoices, and assure a smooth transition to the new facility. 
While some solutions were easy to implement, such as maintaining a regular cleaning schedule, other changes were significantly more challenging.  When the management team has clearly risked so much for the company, it is easy to understand their desire to maintain full control, but their organizational structure needed adjustment. They needed to change both for the growth of the current workers, and more importantly, so the leadership team could rest!  The new organizational structure was the crux of our recommendations, and we believe it will be the lynchpin for future growth as the company transitions to their new home.
My favorite part of our time with our client is that our conversations with the owner often turned towards the “big-picture,” where we envisioned and strategized ways to modernize Bethlehem without sacrificing the historical and religious aspects that make this city so important to many. This is clearly a conversation that deserves much more attention than one week can allow, and I fully expect our relationship to continue far beyond the scope of this three month course.
New Friends and New Perspectives in Palestine
Lastly, I want to comment on a unique opportunity this particular course offered. In AGILE-Bethlehem, teams consisted of two Kelley students, and two undergraduate students from Bethlehem University. The BU students were rock stars, both for their willingness to engage the clients prior to our arrival, and more importantly, for their vast knowledge and passion for the region and its inhabitants. We were given full access into their lives, and shown how most Palestinians really live. They took us on tours that showed us the beauty of the natural landscape, and the realities of living within the constricting confines of the wall.  We saw first-hand the pride in the BU students as they discussed how a local monastery and winery was nearly blocked off by a new addition to the wall, but it was halted via court order. (Note: One month later, Israel has overturned this ruling, and intends to restart construction soon.)  We saw the ridiculously cramped quarters of the refugee camps, juxtaposed against newly built settlements for foreigners that travelled to “The Promised Land” to lay claim to land that had been Palestinian owned for centuries.  Near the end of our week, the BU students invited us into their homes, where we ate and drank with their families, laughed about things that I won’t mention here, and cried while hearing stories about how one of our teammates was nearly killed during an Israeli attack. Simply put, we hung out with new friends.
Breathtaking view outside Mar Saba Monastery
When we first started the AGILE-Bethlehem course, I told my classmates that I simply wanted to make it memorable. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the people, experiences and region combined to create a week that I will never, ever forget.  Sure, it was an amazing consulting experience. Yeah, I could put this on a resume and probably have a leg up over other candidates. But that’s not why I went.  I went because this was an opportunity to help a group of people and a region that far too few Americans truly understand. I believe that despite all the injustice and cruelty in the world, most people just want to have a safe, happy, and productive day. It’s my responsibility as a citizen of the world to team with other likeminded people, and encourage positive, lasting change in places where most won’t. There isn’t a paycheck anywhere that could make me feel better than that.
The last night
End of the post; Beginning of a lifelong journey
And now I’m writing this post knowing that somewhere out there, there’s a current Kelley student, or someone considering Kelley Direct that really wants to do something meaningful. I wrote this to hopefully reach someone else that wants to change the world. You can.  It takes courage. It takes persistence. And sometimes it simply means not worrying about what anyone else thinks and just doing something. The AGILE program provides an opportunity to start somewhere, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why I chose the Kelley School of Business for my MBA.
About Brian Nash
Brian Nash recently moved to Charlotte, NC to join Bank of America’s MBA Leadership Development Program. He is extremely passionate about human rights, nature conservation, and live performances of his favorite musicians. His current picks include Against Me!, Frank Turner and Koo Koo Kangaroo. Brian loves to swim almost as much as he loves his wife, and when he is not writing with boundless enthusiasm he can be found frolicking in the largest body of water available. Brian joined Kelley Direct in Fall 2013, will complete his MBA this August and his MS in Business Analytics in 2016. 
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