Global Conversations with: Mauro Guillén, Director, The Lauder Institute

Kait Lavinder, for GPA -- Linguistic abilities and cross-cultural sensitivities are skills sometimes overlooked in higher education management and business programs. In 1983, the Lauder family of Estée Lauder Companies decided to address this by establishing the Joseph H. Lauder Institute in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. A dual-degree and intensive language program prepares students for careers in international business. Director of the Lauder Institute Mauro F. Guillén spoke with GPA staff member, Kait Lavinder, about the importance of global awareness, his experiences as a native of Spain, and how Philadelphia can capitalize on its rich cultural history.

Why is the integration of international studies with management important? Do you think this integration is or will become a requisite component of all business studies?

When the Lauder Institute was founded 30 years ago, MBA and undergraduate management programs were domestically oriented. The Institute was developed because of a need for global management training; companies don’t do business in just one country. Fast forward 30 years and the need for this kind of education is even more important today. The United States, Europe, and Japan are no longer the only major economic players in the world. Now we have India, China, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and other countries to conduct business with; there has suddenly been an explosion in terms of the diversity of the global economy.

The importance of a program that combines international studies with business knowledge is two-fold: instrumental and cultural. The instrumental motivation consists of providing future managers with the tools, instruments, and knowledge they need to operate in an increasingly international and cosmopolitan environment. At the same time, we at the Institute strongly believe in the importance of a well-rounded education that familiarizes people with an understanding of other parts of the world. 

With regards to the instrumental component, is the learning of different languages necessary when a majority of the world’s citizens speaks English?

I always get this question! Obviously if you travel to important parts of the world where English has become the lingua franca, like Germany, you can communicate; but that does not mean you will be effective. It is one thing to be able to communicate in English in many parts of the world, yet quite another to truly understand the nature of business practices in other countries. Language is a manifestation of how different parts of the world are indeed different. Together with language there is a culture; together with culture there is a way of doing things and a particular mindset. Moreover, there are certain parts of the world where English won’t get you anywhere - in China and certain parts of Latin America, for instance.

I started by telling you that 30 years ago there was a need for this type of international management training. I strongly believe that now the need is actually greater. Although the world is moving toward more globalization and people have been writing about the death of distance and of how national differences are becoming less relevant, I actually believe just the opposite is true - that these differences are becoming more relevant. 

Do you foresee this trend of globalization continuing? 

Oh yes, absolutely. This is one of the paradoxes of globalization: most people assume that globalization homogenizes, standardizes, and makes everything more equal when it actually fragments as well. Technology, especially the Internet, has contributed to that fragmentation. The Internet has decentralized everything. On the one hand, the latest song by Justin Bieber is available to everybody; but then you also have thousands of musicians around the world producing songs in their own languages and distributing them to anyone who wants to listen.

This also applies to the world of business. Think about where 3-D printing could take us. Before the 3-D printer, anyone could design something but manufacturing was expensive. Now, you or I can come up with a design, make the product, and sell it online locally. Instead of having homogenization and more uniformity, what you’re going to have is an explosion of different products and consumers all over the world. 

From a business perspective, is it more beneficial for students to become experts in one language and culture or to learn 5 different languages at an intermediate level?

The jury is still out on that one. But here is what I say: normally, the people who invest the time and effort into learning a language pick up other languages as well. Our students here at the Institute usually speak 2 or 3 languages. There’s something about learning a language that’s very similar to learning to play an instrument in that it develops your brain. It doesn’t really matter how many languages you learn, as long as you learn another language. This, again, is the concept of a well-rounded education.

You are originally from Spain and attended the Universidad de Oviedo. When did you begin learning English?

When I was around six years old, which is already too late. When I was learning in school, I traveled to the United Kingdom several times over the summers to learn English. I can certainly speak and write English at a high level of sophistication, but I still have an accent.

When and why did you move to the United States?

I moved here after college, when I was 22 years old, because I wanted to become an academic. When I was in college I worked as a research assistant for a professor, and I liked all of the activities surrounding teaching. It’s pretty obvious that the U.S. is the correct place to go for academics because it offers the most opportunities in terms of training. I applied for a PhD program here and then decided to stay.

What can Philadelphia do to become a more internationally aware city?

Philadelphia is very interesting. It’s a huge city. But even if you just look at the central city part of Philadelphia, you see all of these pockets of immigrants: the Italian market area, the Vietnamese community on Washington Avenue, the Russians in North Philly (which is where I usually go when I’m craving Russian ice cream.) Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and many of these neighborhoods have an ethnic identity to them. In some cases the language is still preserved, like in Chinatown. With all of these neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves, it’s interesting that none have come to dominate. Philly isn’t like Miami, where the Cuban enclave dominates, or Chicago, where the Eastern Europeans dominate. Philadelphia should use this diffusion of different ethnic groups as leverage to show its internationality.

The other great thing about Philadelphia is its rich history. It was the first capital of the U.S. and was one of the largest trading and industrial towns in the U.S. It was also the birthplace of the Korean Independence Movement 80 or so years ago. But for some reason this is something we do not celebrate.

Then of course we have the universities and hospitals. They are important because they tend to attract foreign talent, like myself. There are tons of things going on in Philadelphia that have connections to the global world, but we don’t present ourselves as a global city. New York, on the other hand, does a very good job at this.

The city has become much more attractive because of the Philadelphia International Airport. But we are still constricted. Most of the international flights from Philly are to Europe. There are no non-stop flights to Africa, Asia, or Mexico and only one non-stop flight to Brazil. I think securing more flights to other regions is one of the most important strategies on the part of the city. It makes a big difference in terms of image and money coming in. 

Why hasn’t Philadelphia historically promoted itself as a global city?

Philadelphia is a city that has gone through this cycle of being very vibrant and at the top of its game and then declining and then becoming vibrant again. It became the first capital of the U.S. - highpoint - and then within a couple of decades the capital moved to D.C. About 100 years later, Philadelphia became the largest manufacturing city in the world; but in the 1960s and 70s all of those manufacturing jobs started moving elsewhere. It was only about 20 years ago that the city started picking again. We are investing in health, education, and financial services; but of course every city is doing that. We haven’t reinvented ourselves again yet. There is progress toward Philadelphia having a global connection, but it has not been made explicit - that is why what Global Philadelphia Association is doing is great.

So the overarching theme is that Philadelphia has the resources and the history to be a global city, but has not taken advantage of those assets?

Yes, definitely. We are half way, at best, to transforming the city into a truly global one.

This interview with Mauro Guillén has been edited and condensed from its original version. Edited by Kait Lavinder for GPA.